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Striking for the right to a weekend - sound familiar?

11 September 2019

Employees at Auckland's SkyCity Casino feel that their weekends are not being valued enough.

About 100 SkyCity Casino workers went on strike last week calling for more compensation for the "unsociable hours" that they work in a campaign called "back to the weekend" organised by Unite Union.

Unite Union claims workers are "forced" to work nights and weekends irrespective of their personal situation and with no extra pay.

Striking employees want SkyCity to recognise that not all hours are equal and staff should receive better pay if they are willing and able to work these "difficult hours".

This idea of weekend penal rates is not a new phenomenon, weekend or night rates were common in industrial awards.

Today, while some collective agreements provide for penalty rates, they have become largely uncommon in New Zealand.

In comparison, Australia still uses the award system and penalty rates in Australia are found in many industry awards, ranging from 125 per cent to 225 per cent of a worker's ordinary hourly rate. This is despite a wide-ranging decrease in penalty rates in 2017.

Weekends as we know them have only been around since law changes in 1930s changed the working week to 40 hours, outside which penal rates applied. Prior to this, many people worked a six-day week.

Shop assistants were excluded from this new five-day work week, and unions campaigned for New Zealand to adopt a five-day shopping week to give shop assistants a weekend.

This ignited widespread debate among the unions, retailers, home workers and farmers about the public's right to shop. Law changes in 1945 set a 40-hour week for the shop assistants and gave them their weekends like everyone else.

From this time, New Zealand took weekends very seriously, in comparison to Europe, with most shops and establishments closing for both Saturday and Sunday until the 1980s when weekend trading became legal again.

With the passing of time New Zealand has become a much more secular society. In years gone by Sunday was a day of rest because it was a day of worship and much of the population was a member of one of the mainstream churches.

Those days of significant church influence have gone.

For many in 2019, weekends remain a time of rest, recreation and family. However, there is a growing trend of flexible working, particularly with the advent of the gig economy and apps like Uber, where workers are electing to work outside the standard Monday to Friday work week.

In addition, consumer demand is growing - shops, malls and supermarkets are staying open later and later. In just 20 years we have progressed from retailers needing to find loopholes to trade on a Sunday, to retailers that are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Those who decide to work in industries that are busy at night and on the weekends, like casinos and bars, must know that is when most of the work will be.

Similarly, those working in aged care and medicine operate around the clock. Those who decide to work in these areas know that they will be working at times when others have rest and recreation.

Employees are afforded time for "rest and recreation" under the Holidays Act - where they must receive four weeks of annual leave. In addition, employees must agree to any hours they work.

The Employment Relations Act requires that the hours of work are set out in an employee's employment agreement and that the employee can refuse to work hours outside of these. Although employees in busy industries such as hospitality who are often unavailable run the risk that they will be offered less hours in the future.

Are these protections enough? Should these workers also get extra payment?

We once had compulsory unionism and national awards which provided industry specific conditions for workers. In the last election, Labour promised to implement Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs) which seem to want to take us back to those days.

No matter how you look at FPAs, they are likely to involve workers' wages, salaries and benefits (and potential penal rates) decided by decision makers who have little contact or no connection with the workers in question.

In theory, a FPA could relate to a single workplace where this objection doesn't apply, but the likelihood is that they will spread far beyond that.

The Government is currently considering a report from the Fair Pay Agreement Working Group but it no doubt sees the difficulty of winning political support politically for such an approach.

The SkyCity strike reignites the same debates that were had in the 1940s - the battle between the public's right to access shops and entertainment when it suited them and the right of workers to have a weekend.

Where do you sit? Should workers be compensated for missing out on their weekend? And if so, how should that be achieved?

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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