Abolish statutory holidays to strengthen workers’ rights

Eric Crampton and I have been ragging on Easter recently. I say the Easter trading laws are crazy; Eric proposes tidying up the inconsistency by making Easter Sunday a statutory holiday.

There’s a simpler solution to both problems. It would be more consistent and less crazy to do away with statutory holidays altogether. This would improve life for both holidaymakers and workers, generate efficiencies for just about everybody, and strengthen the right of workers to annual leave.

There’s very little in the way of sound arguments for statutory holidays. It makes no sense for government to dictate when people should take days off (except maybe to encourage certain attitudes, like nationalism, and that’s dodgy enough in its own right). This wouldn’t really be a problem, except for the efficiency costs of everyone holidaying at the same time.

Have you ever tried to rent a kayak at a popular holiday beach on January 2? Have you ever sat in holiday traffic at 4pm on Labour Day? Have you ever been to a supermarket on the Thursday before Easter? The congestion is huge, costly – and unnecessary. The only reason everyone is on the beach, on the road, or at the supermarket is because of the perceived ‘free’ days off they get around that time. In a sane world people would spread out their holiday weekends throughout the season and normal infrastructure would be able to handle the load.

Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting with a workmate in mid-December? Have you ever tried to finish something for an end-of-week deadline before Easter? Have you ever arranged holiday cover for an uninterruptable service? The disruption to normal business is, again, huge, costly and unnecessary. In a sane world workers would spread out their holidays so there would generally be only a small proportion of staff away at the same time.

If you’re a retail worker, have you ever tried to exercise your right to annual leave on a holiday weekend? If you adhere to a religion other than Christianity, have you ever tried to book leave for your spiritual observance? If you have family, have you ever had to argue for time off for special family events? The skepticism with which some employers greet such requests is unacceptable and unfounded. Statutory holidays allow these employers to devalue workers’ need for time off outside of statutorily defined purposes. The right to time off is best protected by an attitude that workers need not explain their leave requests – not an attitude that their entitlement on normal days is somehow secondary to their entitlement on government-sponsored holidays.

My policy solution:
* Abolish all statutory holidays.
* Fire most of the Labour Department inspectors – they’re not needed any more.
* Increase the minimum annual leave entitlement to 31 days a year (the current 20 days, plus the 11 days of statutory holiday just cancelled).
* Extend the existing laws that protect workers’ rights to religious observance and to time with dependents, so that it’s clear that those principles also apply to leave requests.
* Let employers continue to manage their annual leave liabilities the way they do now. Existing law around health and safety and risk management create enough incentives for employers to encourage employees to take their leave, not save it up, so no one will be deprived of time off under this proposal.

I predict that people will generally continue to take leave on holidays that are significant to them, but will return to work more quickly after the holiday is over. Long holidays will happen when they actually make sense – February, when the weather is beautiful, and July/August, when people want to escape from winter. There will be less pressure on infrastructure: the road toll will decline, essential services will be available year-round, and workers in all industries will be less stressed. Parents will save up their 11 extra days for the school holidays. Young people will save them for extended overseas trips. There will be more respect for leave requests, and cultural diversity will be enhanced by people of all cultures feeling free to take time off for their significant holidays.

There’ll also be less money wasted on labour inspectors, and it’ll actually be possible to get a coffee on Lambton Quay on January 5. Who could say no to that?