I’m afraid to say the one-off public holiday to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II passed me by. This was partly because we are both in isolation after testing positive to Covid.
Also, the concept of a public holiday, when you get paid for not going to work, ceased to be relevant to me about 2005 when I quit my full-time job. As happens in the media and many other organisations, some people are rostered on to work a public holiday. This is paid at double time and a half, compared to ordinary time if taking the day off. This is only so for full-time or part-time employees on an industrial award. Casual workers can take the holiday off, but they don’t get paid.
Public holidays in Australia (there are up to 16 national and State-based public holidays), have their own special act of Parliament. The act decrees at what rate an employee should be paid, if he/she takes the day off or has to work on a public holiday.
Public holidays are controversial in Australia, starting with Australia Day on January 26 and the ongoing debate that it is culturally insensitive to celebrate the day white people invaded the country and engaged in frontier wars. Queens Birthday is another holiday subject to the whims of whatever brand of politician is in power. Some states hold the Queen’s birthday in June, September or October. Ironically, the Queen’s actual birthday was April 21. I expect that in 2023 this holiday will either be gazetted King’s Birthday or perhaps we will celebrate both?
Labor Day was traditionally celebrated on the first Monday in May with union marches and music. But some states and territories moved the date to March, September or October. Only Queensland kept the tradition.
National holidays come in a bunch (two around Christmas and New Year and another two at Easter), despite some 10 million Australians reporting to the Census that they have no religion at all. Christianity decreased by more than 1 million people in the 2021 Census, but is still Australia’s most common religion. Other religions continue to increase.
Then there is Anzac Day, which is becoming more popular rather than less, given that it mostly commemorates the fallen in WWI. As songwriter Eric Bogle famously said: ‘someday no-one will march there at all’.
Back in the 1990s, when careers and work/life balance were on our minds, we assembled as much annual leave as we could find and embarked upon a nine-week tour of the US and Canada. I was taken around a daily newspaper in Vancouver and the editor, on learning that Australian journalists (then) got six and a half weeks leave a year, pleaded with me not to share that with his staff. Canada, which is less generous than some, pays two weeks a year (if you have been with the employer for a year). This extends to three weeks if you stay for five years and so on. In Australia, the powerful federal Australian Journalists Union negotiated six and a half weeks, which was meant to reward the employee for working unsociable shifts. In the US, workers have no paid federal leave entitlements at all. Yet 77% of employers informally offer leave to their workers, along the lines of the Canadian model.
That still means that 23% of employers in the world’s biggest economy either cannot afford to pay workers who are not working or they don’t much care.
Compare that with some of the Nordic countries. According to whoseoff.com, which ranked countries by the quality of their annual leave, Spain, Austria and Finland emerged as the top three. The latter allows 25 days a year for annual leave and another 11 days for public and religious holidays. Spain offers 39 days a year (and a daily siesta) and 10 public holidays. Austria’s 39 holidays include 25 days’ paid leave and 13 public holidays. Austrians who have worked for the same company for a long time can take as many as 35 days annual leave.
You can see that this is not by any means a level playing field. In Japan the annual leave entitlement is 10 days. Workers who have been employed continuously for at least one and half years are granted one additional day of leave for each year of service to a maximum of 20 days. There are no legal provisions for pay on public holidays, despite Japan having 16 national public holidays. Japan’s leave entitlements may seem niggardly, but ironically employers find it hard to convince salarymen to take holidays. There is a culture of ‘attendeeism’, which could be interpreted as a fear of someone replacing you while you are holidaying in the mountains.
So how does Australia stack up? For each year of service an employee is entitled to a minimum of 4 weeks of paid annual leave. If the employee is a shift-worker, they are entitled to a minimum of 5 weeks of paid annual leave. Every employee is also entitled to 10 to 13 paid public holidays depending on the state and territory. Long service leave, which varies by jurisdiction, is also available to long-standing employees.
In researching this topic (under duress, dear reader), I came across a report based on a Unicef study on maternity leave. As you might have come to suspect, the US has no national scheme for paid maternity leave. At the other end of the scale are Estonia, Austria, Japan and Sweden where women can take up to 88 weeks of paid leave (Estonia),
As The Guardian story says, the UK rates in the bottom third of OECD countries. Australia is ranked second-last. Maternity and paternity leave in this country both fall under parental leave which is 12 months’ unpaid and for which parents can claim 18 weeks leave pay (at the national minimum wage). Only one parent at a time can take unpaid job-protected leave.
State public holidays are a bonus – for example Melbourne Cup Day in Melbourne, Brisbane’s Ekka show holiday and so on. Australian workers are perhaps known, but not exclusively so, for taking a day either side of a public holiday. For example, I’d love to know how many Australians didn’t go to work today, parlaying the mourning for Queen Elizabeth into a four-day weekend. Some people do this officially (taking a day off their holidays). Some just call in sick and hope their boss doesn’t spot them at the footie or the cricket.
As we’ve been told, yesterday’s national day of mourning is a one-off event. I’d have thought most of us would have had our fill with the blanket coverage on TV channels (ongoing). I’m still trying to work out if the bird’s eye view of Westminster Abbey was a camera or a drone. I did so feel for those eight sturdy chaps who carried the Queen’s coffin for what seemed an unreasonably long time. They didn’t waver, even when you read that the lead-lined oak coffin weighed something between 250kg and 317kg.
Meanwhile I struggle to carry a box of tissues from one room to another. I can’t believe we went all this time without getting Covid and now here we are.
Make sure you wash your hands after reading.