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Making Christmas Eve a public holiday too costly, industry groups say

Multiple industry associations have reiterated their opposition to the Queensland government’s push to make Christmas Eve a partial public holiday.

The National Retail Association (NRA) and several prominent Queensland industry groups, including the Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland, as well as the Australian Retailers’ Association (ARA), urged the government to abandon its proposal this week, calling it a stunt to appeal to unions before a state election next October.

“With flat GDP figures revealed yesterday, weak July retail trade figures, and other markers of a slowing economy – weighed against a state election next October – this is just a pre-election stunt,” ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman said.

Cost estimated at more than $100 million

The Palaszczuk government pitched the proposal in August as a way to offset the reduction in Sunday penalty rates that took effect for full-time, part-time and casual works on the retail, fast food and pharmacy awards from July 1.

The move would enable workers on these awards to earn the public holiday penalty rate (225 per cent of normal wages for full-time and part-time staff and 250 per cent for casuals) from 6pm on Christmas Eve, one of the busiest trading days of the year for retailers.

Documents released during the consultation period, which closed on Monday, showed the extra wages could cost Queensland businesses between $41.3 million and $136.9 million.

However, this estimate is based on the number of employees who worked on Christmas Day in 2011, when trading is restricted for many businesses, and employer association Ai Group believes the actual cost could be three times higher, Brisbane Times reported.

Zimmerman also pointed out that evening and Saturday penalty rates increased for casual workers on the retail award from July 1, which he said diminished the government’s argument.

Pay extra, or close early

Faced with the extra cost, some retailers may simply shut their doors at 6pm, which industry groups say would negatively impact last-minute Christmas shoppers. And those who own small businesses may choose to send staff home and work from 6pm themselves.

“Those who will be hurt most by this are not large multi-nationals, but mum-and-dad small businesses who work ridiculous hours just to make ends meet,” the NRA said in a statement. “Many of these outlets also rely on the Christmas trade period to support their operation during more lean times of the year.”

The government’s suggestion that businesses could pass on the extra cost to consumers is simply not feasible in retail, Zimmerman said.

“Retailers don’t operate ‘surcharge collection’ businesses; they don’t have a mechanism to load prices to cover increased costs,” he said.

Need for consistency

Zimmerman said the proposal also creates the absurd situation that a multi-site retailer would pay its staff in Coolangatta one rate on Christmas Eve and its staff a few hundred metres away in Tweed Heads something else.

While penalty rates apply across the board, public holidays and restricted trading days differ by state. South Australia and the Northern Territory both recognise Christmas Eve as a partial public holiday from 7pm. But Zimmerman said the Queensland government shouldn’t follow suit.

“Just because one government makes a poor policy decision doesn’t mean everyone should do it,” he said.

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