Banks and retailers should be open for business on Christmas Day. Why stop at just weekends and Boxing Day when the Holy Grail of productivity is at stake?
The big banks have lobbed an application into Fair Work Australia (FWA) asking that the definition of “ordinary working hours” be extended to include Saturday afternoons and all of Sundays.
They say it’s all about “flexible and efficient modern work practices in a way that has proper regard to the considerations of productivity and employment costs”.
So was the move by the NSW Government last Wednesday when it lobbed a bill into parliament to open the shops – and not just major CBD stores either as is presently the case – for trading on Boxing Day.
Why stop at weekends though? What about the waste, the loss of productivity, of having banks and shops closed on Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day before 1 pm?
Surely productivity and the future prosperity of the nation are more vital than some namby-pamby old workplace laws.
Okay, that was a bit of fun. Not even the Business Council (BCA) or the Bankers Association (ABA) would seriously contemplate a call for Christmas Day trading – yet. It just wouldn’t be good PR.
But the debate has to be had because the push from business for longer trading hours is likely to get louder. Who benefits? Who wants it? Does it really bring a positive economic impact? Is there are prohibitive social cost?
The profitability of big business on the east coast of Australia, and particularly in the retail sector, is under pressure. For non-food retailers, the situation is getting critical. For banks, demand for credit is not what it used to be. The constant complaining about “high funding costs” masks the real issue for banks, that is, revenue growth has slowed because people aren’t borrowing as much.
To sustain the record profit run then, costs have to be cut and fees have to go up. Whether longer opening hours can help however is moot.
In their joint application to an award review by Fair Work Australia, the ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and GE Capital Finance say they are in the same position as retailers, telecommunications service providers and call centre operators but enjoy less flexibility to roster employees on Saturdays and Sundays.
There is always an element of the “woe is me” in these applications – “look at those other lucky industries which enjoy such and such”. Already, some banks open on weekends if they have struck an Enterprise Bargain with their staff – hence National Australia Bank not being part of the latest FWA application.
The unions hammered the application as expected, saying the move to create a “notional weekend” was the thin end of the wedge. Even if the banks were committing at this stage to continued penalty rates employees would suffer from inevitable demands to work weekends, and so forth.
Community groups are naturally opposed to any extension to trading hours. Family life and communities, they say, will be the victims.
It is a tough one to measure, but then again so are the claims from business, principally that the economy will suffer if business – up against the 24/7 online competition – is not more flexible.
Frankly, this argument is hard to buy – that customers don’t already have enough time to do their banking and shopping and are going to spend more if there are longer trading hours.
While the community might get a marginal benefit from further access to shops and banks there is little evidence to support the theory of an economic benefit.
Rather, further deregulation would be more likely to benefit big business at the expense of small businesses who could ill afford to compete at all hours paying penalty rates.
In the case of NSW, the only employer organisation which appears to represent small retail operators, the Master Grocers Association, opposes further deregulation.
But you can see why the government is falling for it, the lure of further revenues and a push from lobby groups. Take the Woolworths submission to the Review of Retail Trading:
Woolworths recommended reducing the number of restricted trading days to two and a half days of the year (Christmas Day, Good Friday and ANZAC Day before 1pm) “in line with the Victorian model and removing the exemptions process”.
Woolworths even puts a number on it.
“Simplifying the trading hours regime in this manner will not only provide customers with greater access to retail stores at times that suit their lifestyle but it will provide close to 23,000 Woolworths Limited store-based employees with the opportunity to work a combined total in excess of 180,000 hours. This would amount to over $7.5 million in wages which would then flow into the local economy”.
It’s an enticing argument. But how many small businesses go out the back door?
Looking at both sides of the ledger, longer hours might be good for employees who wish to work outside hours. Good for executive bonuses and shareholders if increased profits eventuate too. And good for state government, if tax revenue rises.
But do shoppers really want it, or need it? Probably not. What is the cost to communities? Probably deleterious. And small businesses, how can they compete?
Surely it would be a poor outcome to further strengthen the hand of big corporations against small business. Longer opening hours though would further erode their leisure time and quality of life.
The more small businesses hit the wall, the less competition for big business, which means the spectre of higher prices. Ergo, consumers suffer in the end.
What with the present trading exemptions and the relentless winding back of regulations over the years, it is about time the line was drawn while Australians still have two and a half days of complete holidays left … Well, almost complete. Journalists with newspapers to produce on Boxing Day have never managed to get a full Christmas Day or Good Friday off.