Choosing your own public holidays? It sounds like a dream. But there are draw backs to trending flexibility around public holiday dates.
Is it important that some holidays are shared?
Looking at the list of our public holidays, it's easy to believe they were picked at random. Christian holidays? A horse race? The non-birthday of the Monarch?
Luke Hilakari spoke to Ali Moore on ABC Drive on the question of "What if we could choose our own public holidays?" Listen here
And while lots of us participate in religious or secular traditions around key dates, there are also public holidays which we don't have a script for.
So are public holidays even that relevant anymore?
Yes, they are. Look, not all holidays have to be meaningful to everyone. I'm happy to take King’s Birthday off without being a monarchist. What’s important to me is that my kids and my parents and my partner and I all get the day off so we can spend time together. It's the shared time off that's important, not necessarily the historical cultural meaning.
But the recognition of public holidays is an important cultural marker. Indeed, the reason Australia Day is so contentious is that having a collective day off is meaningful – it's about who we are and what we celebrate. Choosing to celebrate our national culture on a day of mourning for First Nations people is deeply disrespectful.
There’s also an economic benefit. 86% of Regional Tourism spending comes from people within Victoria. These are people who travel from Melbourne on public holidays and weekends. Two thirds of regional Victoria tourists are day trippers taking advantage of days off work. Public holidays give people the opportunity to travel with their friends and family and provide tourism businesses with certainty they can plan around rather than ad hoc days off.
At the same time, there are compelling reasons to make public holidays a flexible deal.
Although we are an increasingly secular country many of our holidays are still built around Christian events. If you have another faith or you have other days that are really important to you, I think it’s fair that you should be able to take those days off instead.
Workers with family overseas, particularly those who celebrate Lunar New Year, may want to take a substantial block of time off around Lunar New Year so they can visit family.
Accordingly, some workplaces allow employees to substitute a different day in the same month as the public holiday. The ASU has negotiated agreements where Australia Day specifically can be worked and a substitute taken during NAIDOC week (or another date as agreed with the employer).
Some larger employers in Australia have implemented a “floating public holiday” policy. Under this scheme, employees can substitute certain public holidays for other dates with religious or ceremonial significance. For example, an employee who does not celebrate Easter can arrange with their manager to have the Lunar New Year as a designated leave day.
Who gets to benefit from public holidays? Who doesn’t?
It’s also worth remembering that around 15% of all workers work in jobs that can’t shut down for a public holiday- hospitals, emergency services, utilities, public transport – and more and more retail and hospitality businesses are choosing to open on public holidays. For these workers, it’s really important that regardless of their culture or how they feel about the public holiday, they are compensated appropriately for working on a day that others receive a paid holiday for. That means penalty rates should be paid.
Workers who are casual or are technically sole-operators or contractors don’t get paid for their public holiday. We’ve even seen typically permanent jobs be contracted out as 9 month contracts to avoid paying people over the Summer break.
This is fundamentally undermining our social contract – our expectation of what it is to be a worker in Australia.
Who stands to benefit from substituting public holidays?
There is good reason unions historically defended penalty rates and trade restrictions on public holidays. It’s because these holidays weren’t given without a fight.
In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge responds to Bob Cratchit’s request for a holiday on Christmas:
“[Christmas] is not convenient. And it it’s not fair. If I were to hold back half a crown from your pay for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound. But you don’t think me ill-used when I pay for a day’s wages for no work.”
“Christmas is a poor excuse for picking a business man’s pocket every 25th of December.”
That has historically been employers’ approach to every public holiday.
Working people in their unions have collectively fought for and won public holidays, and unions want to make sure we don’t lose them for the next generation.
We all want workers to be able to take days off that are important to them, but we need to make sure Scrooge isn’t the winner in all of this, and protect penalty rates and paid days off.
If you do substitute a day you should check:
- You are paid as per your public holiday entitlements (penalty rates)
- You are still receiving the lawful amount of annual public holidays (you get a substitute day)
- Your employer must not pressure you to make a swap. It must be agreed by both parties.