Celebrating a "national day" is a social convention that does not mean the same to everyone – even more so, if this commemoration is related to an event that meant the subjugation of an entire race. The observance of Australia's National Day (Australia Day) as a public holiday is an example fraught with tension.
The establishment of the first permanent European settlement on the continent of Australia took place on 26 January 1788. For some, it is a historical milestone that should be commemorated; for others, it is an unworthy date, which should disappear or be replaced by a celebration that honours interculturalism.
The Australian government has officially picked up on that debate but left it up to employers and employees to come to an agreement on whether to work or take a day off to commemorate Australia Day.
It’s not a new policy, as explained by Finance and Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher.
“In people’s enterprise agreements in the APS, there’s been the ability for many years to substitute days based on operational requirements in consultation with your managers, if that’s allowable in the EBA,” Gallagher said over ABC Radio.
We recognise that January 26 evokes different emotions for our employees across the business and we are receptive to employees who do not feel comfortable taking this day as a public holiday. - Katy Gallagher, Public Service
Read more: How public holidays will change in Australia
What does the policy over Australia Day imply in practice?
- Companies can give their employees the freedom to choose whether or not to work on 26 January. The condition: an agreement between employees and employers.
- It is possible to work on a public holiday and have another day off in lieu of it.
- In some companies, this option is considered in their labour agreements, but even if it is not, the employee may not work on that date if they have reached an agreement with their employer.
- The agreement must respect employees' freedom of choice.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, employers must not influence or press in any way an employee to change a public holiday “for another day or part of the day”.
Read more: Is it a good idea to work while on holiday?
Unilever takes a stand and wants to bring other companies on board
The Australian business of multinational consumer goods company Unilever has a clear policy on the subject: Australia Day is not a cause for celebration.
“Australia is and always will be Aboriginal land and by working on January 26, I want to demonstrate my respect for the Traditional Owners of our beautiful country,” said Unilever manager Rachael Hennin. She worked on Australia Day last year and is going to do the same this year.
For Hennin, it's not just a decision with a personal dimension. She wants it to be an example that will inspire other employers.
Unilever in Australia and New Zealand has thus taken concrete steps to set an example for other companies. From 2021, it has implemented its ‘interchangeable holiday policy,’ which allows employees to work during public holidays in exchange for another day off.
Companies that have followed their example include Woolworths, Telstra and Channel 10, which have also decided to give their employees the option to work on January 26.