How penalty rates helped me escape poverty by working hard

Penalty rates gave me independence & the chance to escape poverty.

I started my first job in the service industry when I was 14 years old and 9 months: precisely the age at which I was allowed to be legally employed.

My first job was as a cashier at a well-known fast food place in my regional Queensland hometown.

I was one of 5 children. Neither of my parents worked. My family survived off our welfare payments and struggled to get by.

My small wage as a cashier give me the ability to pay for luxuries like deodorant and a Spice Girls CD. My job didn’t provide much, but it took the edge off poverty.

During the week I was paid about $8 an hour. But a weekend or late-night shift bumped my pay upwards considerably.

Penalty rates helped me survive high school – no one knew how poor I was because I paid my own way. Penalty rates meant I never had to miss out on all the things other kids had.

There was little opportunity for me in my home town: no possibility to further my education and few job opportunities. So I graduated high school at 16 years old and immediately fled to Brisbane to start a University degree.

I rented a townhouse with two friends about a month after I turned 17: an instant adult, even though Brisbane City Council wouldn’t give me a library card without my parents’ permission.

Once again I managed to land a job at a fast food place, about an hour’s walk from my house. I did as many shifts as I could without undermining my Uni commitments or getting cut off from the government assistance I desperately needed to afford to study.

I always walked to work, regardless of the time of day. Walking was free, and I couldn’t afford to pay for a bus ticket. And whenever the opportunity came up, I took late-night and weekend shifts. Penalty rates were paying my way through university.

My first retail job in a clothing store saw me find my passion for customer service. I left my university studies and my part-time fast food job to take up a role as an Assistant Manager at a major shopping centre in Brisbane for a national retail chain.

I worked 40 hours per week, mandatory Saturdays and 12 hour shifts on a Thursday to fit in with trading hours of 9am – 9pm. I was 17 years old and my full time hourly rate was $8.50, with penalty rates on late nights and Saturdays.

Without the boost of penalty rates to my small pay packet, I wouldn’t have been able to buy my groceries after paying my rent and utilities.

For the 15 years I worked in clothing retailing, moving up the chain of command to senior Area and State Management positions, I didn’t know what a weekend looked like.

I worked whenever I was rostered on. I missed out on a 9am-5pm, 38 hour per week job. I missed out on time-off in lieu for extra hours worked.

I missed out on proper lunch breaks with kitchen facilities and a place to sit when my feet were sore from working all day and night in the heels I had to wear standing all day.

Although as a salaried staff member in management I stopped getting penalty rates for my weekend work, most of my team still received and relied on penalty rates to survive on retail wages.

I worked with young single mothers returning to the workforce who were only able to work weekends and late nights when their families could look after their children. They counted on penalty rates to supplement their one-income household.

I hired university and TAFE students who were busy with uni classes, young people relying on penalty rates to ensure they could complete unpaid university work placements.

I employed people who had full-time jobs, but needed a second job and penalty rates to survive.

We missed out on weekends and sleep at night. We missed out on public holidays with our families. But penalty rates kept us afloat. We paid our rent and our utility bills.

Penalty rates held out a promise that if we worked hard – harder than everyone else and for longer hours – just maybe we might escape the poverty trap.

I’ve relied on penalty rates to escape family poverty and rural isolation. Penalty rates gave me independence and a chance to dream of a better future.

And so I’m incredibly disappointed at the Fair Work Commission’s decision to reduce Sunday penalty rates.

Cutting penalty rates stomps on the future of young people and the economic independence of women. Cutting penalty rates hurts families who desperately need every dollar a shift at work can bring in.

The Turnbull government is condemning our most financially precarious workers to permanent poverty by slashing penalty rates.

Which is why I’m standing as the Greens candidate for the seat of Clayfield in the next Queensland state elections.

Because we have to give a damn. Because people need someone who’ll stand up for what matters. Someone they can trust. Someone who knows what it’s like to struggle to survive and how important it is to protect our rights at work.

I’ll be that voice. Join me.

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