According to Dr. Campbell, a Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, youth employment in Australia is higher than in any other OECD country, which indicates that current legislation has put relatively few barriers for schoolchildren to work (Fair Work Australia 2011, p. 5). However, the National Retail Association Limited (NRA) was not satisfied with the existing General Retail Industry Award, which required a minimum of 3 hour engagement period for casual employees. In July 2011 the satisfaction of their claim for a 90 minute shift by Fair Work Australia (FWA) started an ongoing debate between strong supporters of the reform and their opposition.
In order to evaluate potential benefits and threats of the modified General Industry Award, it is crucial to understand the perspectives of all the stakeholders. First of all, it is important to discuss the rationale for the shorter shifts, requested by the employer association. Secondly, it is necessary to consider the arguments presented by the unions against the new reform. Finally, the opinion of the schoolchildren and their parents should be analysed.
The primary concern of the NRA was the inflexibility of the current legislation. According to the survey conducted by NRA the majority of employers would be able to employ more students without the working time restriction. Gary Black, the executive director of NRA, in his media statement mentioned that the current tax and customs regimes make it hard for the local retailers to employ schoolchildren. He emphasized that more flexibility in the working hours would “give employers the breathing space they need to continue creating jobs for young people” (National Retail Association, 2011).
On the other hand, the unions view the change in minimum shift hours as an attempt to diminish award system and to decrease the minimum wage of the low-paid employees. Jeff Lawrence, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trades Unions, presents three reasons for the unions’ disapproval of the new reform. Firstly, he claims that the pay for a 90 minute shift would hardly cover the cost of getting to the workplace. In this case very few schoolchildren will find it efficient to work, thus the reform will decrease youth employment rather than increase it. Secondly, unions try to protect adult employees, who face more financial pressure. If retailers are allowed to employ schoolchildren for short shifts, they may cut back on the shifts of the adult employees. This will have drastic consequences for the adult casual workers, who find it hard to make ends meet already today. Thirdly, unions consider the decision of FWA as a step, which nullifies the efforts of many decades to build protection for Australian workers (Lawrence 2011, p.11).
In order to get the full picture of the impact a shorter minimum shift might have, it is important to consider the perspective of the students, who are affected by the new legislation. Burke and Davey (2011, p. 3) quote young people, who are pleased with the result of the new reform. The key benefits of the shorter shifts students find in the flexibility of the workload. The opportunity to work less time allows them to take fewer shifts and concentrate on their studies when necessary. However, not all schoolchildren are likely to share this view. For those, who spend a lot of time on getting to their workplace, working is becoming inefficient. In the low-income families the loss of a job by a student may be detrimental for the family budget, which could jeopardize the future of the children.
The issue of youth employment is not an easy one and there will always be a number of perspectives on it from different stakeholders. That is why it is impossible to find a unique solution, which would satisfy all the parties. The representatives of the retail industry have the right to pursue efficiency and flexibility. Replacing adult personnel with part-time schoolchildren is a business strategy, which certainly has its benefits for the companies. Moreover, shorter shifts allow retailers to organize their workforce more efficiently in response to workload fluctuations during the day. However, the position of the trade unions also deserves full support. Protecting the right of young employees for a decent payment and defending the job security of adult workers, trade unions cannot support the decision of the FWA. In my opinion, the current economic situation makes it necessary to reform the existing legislation.
Retailers will always pursue the most economically efficient strategy; therefore creating barriers would only force businessmen to search for employees somewhere else. In this case, schoolchildren will lose their opportunity to get a part-time job at all, while many positions for adults will be outsourced. Such outcome will benefit neither retailers nor their employees; therefore it is necessary to allow some flexibility to the business for the sake of the common benefit.
Burke, K. & Davey, M., 2011. Teenagers back in business with 90-minute shifts. Sydney
Morning Herald, 21 June. p.3.
Fair Work Australia, 2011. Decision. [Online] Available at:
http://www.fwa.gov.au/decisionssigned/html/2011fwa3777.htm [Accessed August
Lawrence, J., 2011. Shorter shifts leave workers out of pocket. Newcastle Herald, 22 June.
National Retail Association., 2011. Minimum hours decision will open doors for young
people. [Online] National Retail Association Available at:
http://www.fwa.gov.au/decisionssigned/html/2011fwa3777.htm [Accessed 23 August
Stewart, D., 2011. Fair work for teens. Newcastle Herald, 25 June, p.10.
Wooden, M., 2011. The after-school job is the comeback kid‘, The Conversation, 21 June,
[Accessed 23 August 2011].