The Land Of The Lost Weekend
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
29th September 2012
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I like late night shopping. I like being able to pick up a few things that I have forgotten after dinner. But my pleasure at the convenience of shopping any hour of the day or night comes at a great cost. A cost that I do not bear directly, but one that other people have to pay; one that in the long run affects me negatively also.
This weekend at the Opera House is the third “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. All manner of supposedly dangerous ideas are being floated. Most of them are more politically correct than dangerous, but it is a sign of the health of a community to be able to spend a weekend discussing any and every idea – even dangerous ones. I am sorry not to be present to suggest some of my own dangerous ideas, especially the idea of bringing back weekends. As the government keeps eroding public holidays and weekends, only the rich chattering classes are able to attend a weekend conference like this.
This long weekend celebrates Labour Day, but most 21st century Australians do not give it a second thought. We have forgotten the struggle of the 19th century when twelve hour shifts for six days a week was the normal lot of the worker. We have forgotten the great victory of the 1850’s when the 888 pattern was agreed upon – 8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours sleep. We have forgotten the normal pattern of only 48 hours work and the security of Sunday rest. We have also forgotten the victory after World War II when working hours were reduced to 40 per week. Five days of work a week with all shops shut at noon on Saturday and not opened again till Monday morning. So, having forgotten the reason for the public holiday, we celebrate a long weekend, as simply a break from the normal routine of life. Unless you are in retail - for the shops are still open, requiring people to work on the holiday that celebrates holidays!
So why are shops opening longer hours and public holidays being reduced? And why is there pressure to open banks and the financial industry on weekends? Two of society’s chief problems are the work/life balance and disconnectedness of individualism. Both of these problems are exacerbated by the removal of weekends and public holidays.
The deregulation of shopping hours is not the desire of the workers. The rich, the CEO’s, the board members, the shareholders are not affected. But the poor who can get no other job and cannot afford to reject work whenever it is available, are the ones who have to forgo their family time and community time in order to work at night or on weekends. Their children are home from school but they have to work. There are some people who for personal reasons want night-time or weekend work, but in general this is not the case. The union that represents retail workers is opposed to the unseasonable hours its members are now working. The union representing the employees of the financial industry does not want the banking sector to follow the retailers.
The main reason shops are open is competition, not growth – it’s to maintain market share, not to increase the market – it’s to compete with other retailers, not to improve the economy. When everybody is open for business there is no advantage to anybody, and when nobody is open for business there is no disadvantage to anybody. In May this year, The McKell Institute published a study on the effect of Easter Day trading in Victoria (“Does our spending increase? The relationship between trading restrictions and retail turnover”). Between 1990 and 2011, Governments changed their regulations concerning trading on Easter Day. There were some years of restricted trading and some years of unrestricted, and some of unrestricted trading limited to the Melbourne CBD. The study showed that there was no increase in consumer spending: the shops didn’t benefit but the workers and the community suffered.
It’s not economics that requires shops to be open 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year. After the depression and the second World War, the economy of this nation was rebuilt with a five day forty hour week. But now our improved standard of living seems to require longer hours of work, two incomes per family, and constant shopping to keep us going. Germany, has grown to be “the economic powerhouse of Europe” while maintaining its weekend restrictions on shopping hours.
So why do NSW governments listen to retailers’ lobbyists to remove public holidays like Boxing Day and further encroach on the workers’ rights to have weekends off? Is it the confusion between short-term competitive edge and long-term creation of wealth? Is it the confusion between growth in the wealth of a society and growth in the health of its citizens? Is it the politics of individualism, where politicians fear voters’ desire for choice more than governing justly for the welfare of the exploited workers or the health of society as a whole?
This week, Lindsay Tanner is reported to have accused the Labor Party of having lost “its purpose – and soul”. The 888 campaign was one of its foundational causes. What should, or could, be closer to the Labor purpose and soul than better working conditions for the weakest of those in the labour market? Yet years of Labor governments have seen the erosion of worker’s public holidays.
It’s also a Christian cause, for my convenience is not as valuable as my neighbour’s need for recreational time with his family and the community. It is just plain “loving your neighbour as yourself”, to be concerned for the workers’ welfare. It’s good for them and society as a whole to have time when we can all relax and enjoy the wealth and freedom of our labour together.
Further comments on public holiday trading can be found at: