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Boxing Day trade restrictions a blast from the past

By John Slater - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2017


The Shop Distributive, and Allied Employees Association's calls to double down on Boxing Day trading hour restrictions would be a backward step for a fragile retail sector in desperate need of an economic boost.

The union's demands for retailers to close their doors on the $2.5 billion in turnover brought in by this year's sales would not just throw the entire industry out of step with consumers well accustomed to the annual ritual of the post-Christmas shopping binge. It would be a blow to ailing retailers while leaving workers deprived of lucrative holiday penalty rates worse off.

The Baird Government's 2015 wind back of Boxing Day trade restrictions removed an unfair monopoly enjoyed by certain retailers in Sydney's inner city and leafy eastern enclaves who were exempted from the state-wide shutdown. The change has yielded an estimated $200 million bump to retail state wide while giving businesses in Sydney's west, south and the regions a fair shot at competing for the post-Christmas spoils.

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With major brand like Dick Smith, Howard's Storage World, Masters and Payless Shoes shutting up shop in 2016, it's no secret Australian retail is on the nose. Faced with growing competition from wily international upstarts and online outlets, the sector recorded a meagre 0.2 per cent growth over the year preceding May 2016. These sober prospects were laid bare in a report earlier this year by accounting firm SV Partners that found 50,000 Aussie retailers are at urgent risk of going under.

Against these odds, preventing businesses from opening on the biggest trading day of the year would be economic vandalism.

The SDA has claimed the change would only be fair to workers whose Christmas cheer is cut short year after year. But such concern is misplaced.

The union's own research has found only a quarter of workers are opposed to Boxing Day shifts. This figure matches research conducted by the Retail Council and Myer's own internal surveys, with the latter even finding that numbers of workers willing to work on Boxing Day outstripped available shifts.

This should come as no surprise. With holiday penalty rates netting most workers double time and a half pay rates – adding up to more than $50 an hour for a casual worker over 21 – it is little wonder that silly season shifts are in high demand.

The SDA wear fairness as a badge of honour. But where is the fairness in allowing the preference of a minority of workers to dictate the operations of an entire industry at a cost to tens of thousands of both businesses and workers.

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Neither does the SDA's claim that ending Boxing Day Trading will have no economic blowback stand up to scrutiny. As the Harper Competition Law Review made plain, winding back antiquated retail trade restrictions has been a boon for retailers across the board. The year after Tasmania partially deregulated trading hours, total jobs in the sector increased by 8.3 per cent in one year alone – well above double the state's average.

Contrary to the SDA's protestations, the fact that most shops open 360 days a year is by no means a bad thing. It simply illustrates the shift from the 9-5 workweek to a society where female workforce participation is high, working flexibly and remotely is the norm and weekend staples of church and live sport are for most people a relic of the past.

For retail's scores of part time and casual employees, longer opening hours often mean being able to work shifts that suit them best. This is especially true for school and tertiary students who have been estimated to comprise almost 40 per cent of retail workers.

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About the Author

John Slater is the Executive Director of the H R Nicholls Society.

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