Kate Mills Reporter

Kate monitors the social and economic dynamics that drive business. She has been a financial and business journalist for 17 years in Australia and the United Kingdom, working on publications including CFO, ALB (Australian and Asian editions), Investor Weekly and Legal Business in the UK.

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Vive le weekend

Published 11 April 2012 14:41, Updated 12 April 2012 11:25

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Welcome back, reader, from the Easter long weekend, hopefully rejuvenated and ready to dive back into boosting your business. Enjoy it while you can because the weekend looks to be under attack.

The retailing and hospitality industries have been arguing for some time that penalty rates at the weekend – the extra money they have to pay employees to work Saturday and Sunday – make weekend commerce too costly. Now the banks have added their voice to the debate with an application to Fair Work Australia for the weekend to be considered part of the ordinary week for award purposes.

The weekend originated through religious custom. Jewish laws decreed that Jews observe the Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening, while Christian customs dictate observance on the Sunday. Combine these two and for Western cultures, the two-day weekend is the norm. In these more secular times, the weekend is protected by trading restrictions and indirectly by penalty rates. Any discussion of liberalising these is always in the context of being an attack on the weekend.

There are two things to think about. One is the need for more workforce flexibility and the other is the weekend break. Although they seem linked, they don’t have to be. There are plenty of people that want to work at the weekend for reasons of finance or flexibility – the mother, for example, who wants to work evening and weekends because then her partner can look after the children. Why impede this? People need the flexibility to live their lives in a way that most suits them. There is also no doubt that businesses require flexibility, particularly as some parts of the economy are contracting while others are expanding.

However, that does not have to lead to the end of the weekend, simply because weekend commerce is unlikely to be the panacea the retail and hospitality industries are hoping for. If the object is to reduce costs, that’s unlikely to happen as ending penalty rates automatically creates pressure for higher annualised wages. It also reduces the demand from employees to want to work weekends. If traditional retail, for example, wants to decrease wages at a time when it needs to invest in services, it is shooting itself in the foot. Its argument that it needs to longer opening hours to compete with online retail is equally nonsensical.

Frankly the only thing that will enable traditional retailers to meet online competition head-on is to have a better online offering so customers can shop on Sunday afternoons from the comfort of their armchairs. Opening malls for longer will not help.

In any case, while the quest for more flexibility is desirable, it should not mean the end of the weekend. Having a more productive economy to increase the standard of living is a valuable goal but it is not the only goal worth pursuing. There is a value in social goals and making it easy for people to meet communally by having days where fewer people work has a value in itself. Society would be poorer without the weekend. Who is not more relaxed on Sunday morning reading the paper knowing that most of country is relaxing, too? And who would want to lose that magical Friday night feeling when we spill out of offices en masse to celebrate, as a community, that together we are not at work.

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