Do employees work only for their own benefit?

The latest ABS data on ‘working time arrangements’ received a tendentious report yesterday in the SMH:

ALMOST a third of Australian employees work unsocial hours – between 7pm and 7am – and even more complain they have no say about when they start or finish. ….Thirty per cent said their shifts regularly overlapped the hours between 7pm and 7am as part of their main job. Three in five said they had no say about when they started or finished.

As for weekends, 16 per cent said they were required to work on Saturdays, and 8.5 per cent on Sundays. One in four were not always allowed to choose when to take their holidays. (emphasis added)

Note the SMH interpretations I bolded. Working after 7pm isn’t necessarily ‘unsocial’ – a lot of people like their colleagues. The ABS report doesn’t anywhere suggest that people were complaining about having no say about when they start or finish; that simply goes with many jobs where predictable opening or operational times are necessary. The ABS doesn’t say that 16% of people are ‘required’ to work Saturdays; it just says that 16% do work Saturdays. As I noted earlier in the month, weekends and evenings are the only time some people with other commitments can work. And workers in particular industries can’t take holidays whenever they choose for good reasons, eg school teachers can’t take holidays during term.

What’s missing in this reporting is the sense that an employment arrangement is one of mutual advantage between employer and employee to provide goods and services from which other people benefit – rather than just something to benefit the employee, regardless of its effects on others.

But John Buchanan is having none of this:

“It is not just family life, but community life that is being compromised,” said the director of the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University, John Buchanan. “It just rips the heart out of the football team.”

Can’t we put together a footy team out of the 84% of people who have Saturday off work (not to mention those who don’t have jobs at all)?

Lefties love hyperbole and melodrama, so no surprises that some people working outside 9 to 5 Monday to Friday is converted into ‘compromised’ family and community life and undermanned footy teams. What is surprising is the worldview implicit in this critique, one that shows a remarkable resemblance to the 1950s family life once so derided by the left. The idea that 9 to 5 Monday to Friday can be the norm assumes that there is someone at home generating services – doing the shopping, preparing food etc. Almost invariably, that was women. Once they were at work an expanded service sector that provided these services out of hours was near-inevitable, despite the efforts of many conservatives to stop it happening.

It’s no wonder that Menzies is invoked so regularly on the left these days. Some of them view that era with strange nostalgia.

54 thoughts on “Do employees work only for their own benefit?

  1. Andrew, I think the title of the post is a little misleading – employees may only work for their own benefit, but the reason they have jobs in which to work is because of the value they create whilst working.
    But I agree with your point that the article reflects a view that a job is an entitlement rather than an agreement. The notion of a job (or more specifically, a job of a particular kind or remuneration level) as an entitlement underlies all the attacks on labour market deregulation in general and Workchoices in particular. It is a notion that I do not understand. No one should have a right to a certain style of living.
    BTW, you are spot on about the irony of the left complaining about non-traditional working hours.
    If the financial woes of universities have one benefit, it will hopefully be the jettisoning of people like John Buchanan and institutions like those where he works. Who is this bloke and why are we paying his salary?
    As for fielding football teams etc, my brother-in-law (who has captained a local cricket team for 20 years) thinks that the main difficulty with filling teams these days is widespread drug-taking.

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  2. Rajat – I was struggling to find a suitable title, and it shows. But I think we can also challenge the implied view that work is principally about worker entitlements. Many people want to do work that makes a contribution beyond simply facilitating their own lifestyle, even if it means they don’t always work when familists say they should. In the 2005 Aust. Survey of Social Attitudes helping other people (79%) and use to society (78%) both rated well above deciding times or days of week (54%) in what people rated important in a job.

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  3. “The idea that 9 to 5 Monday to Friday can be the norm assumes that there is someone at home generating services – doing the shopping, preparing food etc. Almost invariably, that was women.”

    This is the thing that has annoyed me the most in all the recent forays into telling us what’s wrong with the labour market and how it’s destroying family life. I agree that there is a subtext to all of this, sometimes explicit but usually implicit, that life would be a lot better all around if women just went back to doing what they do best. The nostalgia for the 50s from both left and right conservatives just makes me want to puke, really.

    I think you’ll also find that the same people complain about how difficult it is for women to balance work and family – well how much worse would that be if you had to fit your shopping into an already full working day? I, for one, am glad that enough people choose to work on the weekends to enable me to do my shopping at a time that suits me, rather than having to fit it into .

    The thing about the whole unsocial hours argument is that no-one has ever provided any evidence that people are made to work these hours against their will or, as you point out, whether there is a workable alternative. Presumably some people even work outside the 7 to 7 band under formal flextime arrangements (ie totally by choice).

    Of course shift work is an essential attribute of some occupations, while weekend work is an essential attribute of others. So presumably people take this into account when they are deciding what jobs they want to do. Why, for instance, would anyone go into retail as a career if they had an objection to working on the weekends? (I guess they could move to WA, but even that will change one day I suspect.)

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  4. I’m also amused that some people can’t see the irony of arguing that everyone should work 9-5 Monday to Friday, and that more people should have a say in their start and finish times.

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  5. “I’m also amused that some people can’t see the irony of arguing that everyone should work 9-5 Monday to Friday” – I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say that everyone should work 9-5 Monday to Friday. And I think the argument is more about penalty rates, rather than having to work unsocial hours.

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  6. On the “unsociability” of working hours, Andrew noted that a lot of people like their colleagues and most people find that the workplace is a large and mostly enjoyable part of their social life. At least they find that when they are suddenly deprived of it.

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  7. I daresay slaves and serfs enjoyed the sociability of working with their fellows, but we’ve come a way from there and have lived with what most of us accepted as a ‘fair’ balance of work and the rest of life for a while now. The objection is to moving that equation back in favour of work.

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  8. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say that everyone should work 9-5 Monday to Friday”

    But Russell, doesn’t the very idea of unsocial hours mean that some other hours are to be preferred? In any case, the article in question was certainly implying that there was something wrong in itself with so many people working ‘unsocial’ hours – the survey in question doesn’t actually address the issue of whether people who work such hours receive penalty pay.

    And John Buchanan certainly seemed to think, presuming he was quoted correctly, that there is something fundamentally wrong from society’s point of view in people working on the weekends. Anyway, I don’t know which football team he’s involved with, but the soccer clubs that I have experience of through my daughter certainly aren’t suffering from a lack of patronage.

    I would still argue that ultimately no-one is forced to work at hours they don’t want to. Maybe in the short term, but in the longer term you can always change employers or even occupations if the current job really doesn’t suit. Lots of people do it all the time.

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  9. “doesn’t the very idea of unsocial hours mean that some other hours are to be preferred” – it means that most people think that their nights and weekends are not available, without some extra compensation, to their employers.
    “in the longer term you can always change employers or even occupations if the current job really doesn’t suit. Lots of people do it all the time.” – that’s where we ended the discussion last time – you think I’m pessimistic about people’s ability to look after themselves, I think you’re unrealistic about the situations which make it very difficult for people to change. I also think most people would still prefer to have an ‘umpire’ like the AIRC decide basic conditions, rather than some Darwinian struggle in the market.

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  10. Russell – I’m not opposed to the idea of penalty rates per se (which this discussion isn’t about actually). I’m just not really convinced that they need to be legislated by government.

    As a working woman (and, as Andrew pointed out, therefore one of those directly or indirectly responsible for this downward slide), I’m just wary of anyone who seems to want us to go back to the good old days when the world operated 9-5 Monday to Friday because I know what that settlement entailed in terms of the social and economic position of women. From my point of view, they were definitely not the good old days.

    Of course I know that it is not easy for many people to walk out of one job and into another. I just think that it’s a lot more realistic to change your job if it doesn’t suit you than to expect the job to somehow change. Especially if it’s in an industry where ‘unsocial’ hours are a norm.

    And Andrew was quite right about the tone of the SMH article – it was a pretty emotive coverage of what was just an interesting set of facts about how people work.

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  11. “it’s a lot more realistic to change your job if it doesn’t suit you than to expect the job to somehow change. Especially if it’s in an industry where ‘unsocial’ hours are a norm” – that’s the thing, more and more workplaces are stretching their hours into unsocial hours. Even in the case of the library I used to work in, the ‘backroom’ staff who had never worked on the desks were told that (due to declining staff numbers) they would have to work on desks, and therefore nights and weekends. This might sound pathetic, but quite a few of those people found it very hard to cope, with the public, and with the hours, and while some found it relatively easy to leave, others didn’t, and they ended up on medication and seeing psychiatrists. So it can be an emotional issue.

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  12. Russell – I think your example about the trouble staff at your library had adjusting to new working conditions just strengthens Andrew’s original point:

    What’s missing in this reporting is the sense that an employment arrangement is one of mutual advantage between employer and employee to provide goods and services from which other people benefit – rather than just something to benefit the employee, regardless of its effects on others.

    Libraries (and other workplaces) do not exist to provide work – they exist to provide a service, and staff who do not feel they are capable of being part of that provision need to be able to find work elsewhere.

    On a more general note, I have to say that the idea that 9 – 5 Mon to Fri are the only hours we can work is very inconvenient, particularly for those of us who have higher priorities in life than work, such as students and mothers, but still need to work at some stage to support ourselves. I work highly irregular hours right now, but they work for me because I am able to negotiate them with my superiors, and they allow me to continue with full time studies and other interests.

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  13. Everyone has challenges in their life and in their working life. Part of living is being adaptable to changing environments.

    Russell, in my current job I’ve done all kinds of different things, and sometimes uncomfortable things, that I had never done before – but if the business needs the work to do done and there is nothing otherwise for you to do and it would be very inconvenient for the business to temporarily employ someone else to do it, are you going to cross your arms and say “No, I’m not going to do that”? Not if you think the business should still employ you. Why should they still employ you?

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  14. “Libraries (and other workplaces) do not exist to provide work” – I don’t think it’s that clear cut.
    If institutions don’t successfully meet a need they will cease to exist. But in between existing and not existing there’s a whole continuum of quality of existing. Workplaces are part of society, which entails all sorts of responsibilities; employees have needs, they are in relationship to their employers, colleagues and customers.
    “staff who do not feel they are capable of being part of that provision need to be able to find work elsewhere” or perhaps end up on the disbaility pension. Maybe Andrew has figures on how many people are in that situation – not very humane, not very productive for society.

    Sacha “Part of living is being adaptable to changing environments.” Yes, and nearly all of us have changed jobs, and I guess, nearly all of us have given more to our employers (or at least some of them!) than required or expected. But there isn’t any good reason to give up basic conditions that we consider foster a good quality of life, especially in such prosperous times.

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  15. “But there isn’t any good reason to give up basic conditions that we consider foster a good quality of life, especially in such prosperous times.”

    Like thinking that you might never be called on to do something unfamiliar? Sorry for that – but Russell, it seems to me that you present very odd ideas.

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  16. Russell – you haven’t really articulated a response to my original point, echoed by Joel P, that many people benefit significantly from the provision of services in what other people deem to be ‘unsocial’ hours. You may wish that libraries didn’t operate during such hours, but people who work full-time (let it be said, Monday to Friday 9 to 5) wouldn’t be able to use libraries if it wasn’t so.

    As I said in the previous discussion, I’m not convinced that there aren’t a lot of people out there who are quite happy to work outside of 9-5 (including Joel P himself?), including parents who actually prefer not to work at the same time as their partners so that they don’t have to pay for child care.

    It’s the limitless capacity some people have for trying to impose one-size-fits-all solutions that really gets to me. And the people who presume that there is untimately something more right (or righteous) about their preferences compared to other people’s.

    As far as I’m concerned, the proliferation of many different kinds of employment opportunities is on balance a good development and may it long continue. The fact that not everyone can immediately get exactly what they want in terms of a job is, as Sacha says, just a fact of life.

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  17. Sometimes employees will put in extra hours not for the direct benefit of themselves or the employer, because the work itself has some societal value.

    This is not just the case for public servants, or doctors, but private companies that may be contracted out to the public service or health sector.

    I’m a good example, if it takes less than an hour to solve a (rare) support problem with a system I wrote 20 years ago that helps manage contracts in a quango, I don’t bother charging.

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  18. Sacha, it’s not because the changes are ‘unfamiliar’ that people object; people may be generally wary of change but anyone who is paid to be a manager should be able to enthuse their workers about positive changes.

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  19. “you haven’t really articulated a response to my original point, echoed by Joel P, that many people benefit significantly from the provision of services in what other people deem to be ‘unsocial’ hours.” – there aren’t that many services you can’t get at any time, if you’re prepared to pay for them, try getting an electrician on a Sunday, for example. I do think libraries should be open when they are, and that staff should be paid penalty rates for unsocial hours.

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  20. backroom girl makes a lot of sense.

    Russell, “should” is a word that should be banished from use – it causes all sorts of problems! There are all kinds of things that would be nice to happen, but that doesn’t mean that they will happen. It would be nice if all managers were brilliant and understanding and able to enthuse their staff, but this doesn’t mean that this is true. Discussing managers’ ability to enthuse stuff is about management ability, not the actual work the formerly backroom library staff had to do.

    I’m all in favour of employees being treated well – I’m an employee and fortunately my employer treats me very well and is understanding of me wanting to work fewer hours per week. At the same time, employees are employed to do things that others pay the business for (generally speaking). If the business’ client wants certain work to be done, the client is not going to pay the business if the business doesn’t do that work.

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  21. “I do think libraries should be open when they are,”

    Well, I’m glad we’re agreed on that. Hopefully the same goes for shops, cafes, picture theatres and lots of other services

    “and that staff should be paid penalty rates for unsocial hours.”

    Has someone tried to take away your penalty rates? I’m not specifically advocating it, you know, but people have been know to trade away penalty rates for a higher hourly rate of pay overall. Who am I to say that is a bad thing?

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  22. Too long ago to remember Sacha, in a bookshop. An ex-librarian friend of mine started a bookshop not so long ago – I followed all the trials and tribulations of that quite closely. Most of my family are in small business.
    “should” is a word that should be banished from use” – no irony in that statement?

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  23. “people have been know to trade away penalty rates for a higher hourly rate of pay overall. Who am I to say that is a bad thing?” I will then. I suppose it would be a bit like letting people opt out of Medicare and pay less tax.

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  24. “no irony in that statement?” – yar yar yar I know.

    “I suppose it would be a bit like letting people opt out of Medicare and pay less tax.”

    How so?

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  25. In that some people would take the immediate ‘gain’, which in the long run devalues. And if enough people do it, it will ruin the system/benefit for others who like the universal guaranteed protection.

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  26. Andrew Norton wrote:
    Lefties love hyperbole and melodrama,
    And Rightards don’t? Have a look at the “unions will destroy us” hyperbole floating around (not least within the publications of the CIS). Pot, meet kettle.

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  27. ‘Lefties love hyperbole and melodrama” -and don’t they have someone called Alan Jones on the wireless over there?

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  28. Sacha, what about you? Have you ever owned or worked in a small business or in the commercial world?

    And what about Andrew Norton too.

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  29. Just so we’re clear Russell – based on what you said above, you think that Greg Combet (who has done it on many occasions) should not be able to negotiate away penalty rates in union EBAs?

    You’re not just against AWAs, you’re against any negotiations at all around the issue of penalty rates? They should be imposed on everyone whether they want them or not? Even if 90% of workers in a workplace want to trade them away for a higher hourly rate, they still couldn’t?

    I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from here.

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  30. Leopold – this shows my ignorance of how this all works – I thought that EBAs kind of sat above the award conditions, I didn’t know you could trade away award conditions. Have awards disappeared? there must be at least still state awards??

    I’m not paying attention to whatever the debate is now – too confusing, too boring, too disappointing. What might be possible now is to add to the existing ‘minimum conditions’ things like penalty rates. If I thought that most people didn’t want penalty rates anymore I might change my mind.

    Alternatively, if we keep the award system, it might be possible to recognise different patterns of working, such as in the mining industry, and do away with penalty rates in that award because the higher wages compensate. I don’t want people to have to negotiate individually without a safety-net: awards, minimum conditions, whatever.

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  31. “Sacha, what about you? Have you ever owned or worked in a small business or in the commercial world? And what about Andrew Norton too.”

    I work for one small business (the CIS) and one large one ( the University of Melbourne).

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  32. The CIS is hardly a business, it’s one of the very few organisations in Australia where contributions to it’s operations are tax deductible. Basically, it’s an ideological tax dodge for Hugh Morgan – one of the most dishonest organisations in Australia. Try working at Macbank for a while and tell us how you make out.

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  33. EBAs can negotiate away any award condition, and (I believe) common law contracts can exclude any award condition that has been negotiated away in an EBA in that workplace.

    My good deed done for today – improved someone’s understanding of one of the key debates in public policy at present. 😉

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  34. David – I found 15 hour days in politics a bit tiring, so I will skip MacBank’s 18 hour days. Though at least they pay vastly more than any job I have ever had or ever will have.

    And Hugh Morgan hasn’t been involved for a very long time. Your prejudices are so 1980s:)

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  35. Macbank wasn’t 18 hours a day – sometimes 9 and sometimes 24.
    And yes, the money was good. So were the insights into how global capital actually operates.

    Do tell us what is the point of working for an organisation so pro-market but can’t function under the market unless subsidised?
    You can’t take all that free-market rhetoric and turn it into an actual, operating, profitable business?

    The day the CIS lobby to have themselves removed from the special legislation they operate under, I’ll start reading the published papers with something more than total skepticism.

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  36. David – All business is about persuading people to give their money to you; that’s the fundamental distinction with government, which just takes it. I don’t think persuading people to give it without any direct return is any less of a skill than selling a good or service – probably more so, even if the opportunity cost of the donor is less than the value of the donation, because otherwise they would lose part of it in tax anyway.

    And you are forgetting that most business inputs are tax deductible; donations are a small percentage of total deductions.

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  37. Andrew Norton wrote:
    David – All business is about persuading people to give their money to you; that’s the fundamental distinction with government, which just takes it.
    That’s a little disingenuous – government doesn’t just take the money, they’ve persuaded us over time that that taxation is necessary to make the state function. Governments are (usually) very reticent about going to the polls with increased taxation proposals.

    I appreciate the difficulty of “selling” the CIS to potential donors – especially where the public policy is not to push any one donors agenda. However, the donors that the CIS attracts would hardly be funding the Evatt Foundation – they know what they are getting. At least the CIS isn’t the HR Pufnstuf society.

    I still think the operations would look more honest if not protected as if it were a charity. Transparency is everything.

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  38. I work for a private business at the moment which, while non-profit, is very commercially minded, and while I don’t negotiate with (potential) clients about costs, I’m involved with many other aspects of projects (eg producing material required by contracts). I’m very aware of needing to fulfill clients’ requirements, and in the industry I’m currently working in, the clients’ requirements may not even be clear to them when a project starts. It is often true that part of the game can be to help the client become clear about what they want.

    In terms of small business, I’ve never owned a small business, but a family member is a sole practising solicitor and I’ve seen how that works up at very close view (and helped out in it and formally worked in it too). It can be pretty challenging when you don’t know when the next bill is going to be paid.

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  39. Sacha – I was a an IT worker for a bit over a decade. It’s actually a very good place to work if you don’t have kids and can put up with commuting into the city. It is also one of those places where “unpaid” overtime plays a very big part in others perception of your performance – the longer you stay in the evening, the bigger a hero you are.

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  40. David – Mark Wooden would argue that unpaid overtime of that kind is definitely paid – either it’s part of what is expected for a very generous package or people do it in the expectation that there will be a big pay-off in terms of future earnings (if it gets you a promotion, partnership or whatever).

    But in the end, presumably most people do it willingly and if they don’t want to either they don’t progress any further up the ladder or they leave (as you did?)

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  41. I agree backroom girl – we were well compensated for our “unpaid” overtime – that’s why I put it in inverted commas. I actually agree with Andrew on this one (right up until the Graham Bird-like “leftists” comment which ruined the whole piece).

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  42. I think my comment disappeared.

    I’ll say it again: I agree we were well compensated for the “unpaid” overtime – so to call it that is a bit of a misnomer. I agree with the majority of Andrews piece.

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  43. “It’s actually a very good place to work if you don’t have kids and can put up with commuting into the city.”

    It sounds perfect for me – no kids and I already walk into the Sydney CBD each work morning to catch the train in any event. But I’ve become a 4 day a week employee now and I don’t know if I could really be a 5 day a week employee. No – of course I could – for the right work. But I’m finding my career feet, so to speak.

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  44. It’s not all about salary and conditions. Perhaps those that really crave the highest salary get out there and compete for it because it allows them to live the life they want.

    Until recently I did very challenging policy work for a government body and derived immense satisfaction from it (but not a huge salary). Whether at work or not, my mind was usually on work.

    Yet my happiest memories of work were as a commercial cleaner – and when not working, I didn’t think about it.

    Each job, menial or not, brings some rewards or satisfaction. Humans need a challenge – idleness is a curse. This does not justify serfdom- but rather the sense of accomplisment felt in completing a task well.

    Incidently, in “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” , Solzenitzyn documents this sense of accomplishment as the Zeks build a wall.

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  45. It’s not all about salary and conditions. Perhaps those that really crave the highest salary get out there and compete for it because it allows them to live the life they want.
    The funny thing is, that once you’ve got that life, you may realise you don’t want it for reasons you never considered in the first place, or your circumstances change and put things in a new perspective. I wouldn’t go as far as begrudging someone a penalty rate for working “unsocial” hours though – not everybody has the range of choices available to the well educated. Penalty rates are somewhat of an anachronism, but they still function as a reasonable test of what work is worth. I’m sure the de-regulators will tell us that the penalty rates will arise naturally from competition between employers for employees, which is good in buoyant times but a bugger in a recession.

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  46. “good in buoyant times but a bugger in a recession.”

    David – I think you are right about that, but I always thought that one of the main arguments in favour of genuinely flexible employment arrangements were that they could adjust down along with the economy and therefore share the costs of a recession more equitably among the employed, rather than looking after some of the employed and consigning the rest to unemployment.

    Equally, leaving the issue of penalty rates to the market would no doubt see some people with skills in demand maintain or even improve on current arrangements, while those with few skills in occupations where labour supply outstrips demand might end up either losing penalty rates altogether or have them shift downwards. (Leopold, in comments above, has pointed out that this was already happening in enterprise bargains before Workchoices – it seems that many people are not aware of this.)

    For example, my daughter once worked under an enterprise award that had done away with penalty rates for weekend work and only had them for public holidays. Not surprisingly, as a 14 year old she got to work every public holiday, while the older (more expensive) workers did not. So it seems the market continues to operate at some level whether or not people think they are stopping it from doing so.

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