People & Human Resources

Inside the growing movement for small businesses to boycott the Australia Day holiday on January 26

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Affirm Press

The Affirm Press team wearing shirts to promote Christian White's novel The Nowhere Child. Source: Supplied

By John Nelder and Emma Koehn. 

As millions of Aussies prepare to fire up the barbie ahead of Australia Day, there’s a growing band of businesses that won’t be joining them.

Book publisher Affirm Press in South Melbourne is the latest small business to have joined the ranks of those boycotting the holiday.

Instead, its 11 staff will be working right through it as a show of support for changing Australia Day to a more inclusive date for the nation’s First Peoples.

The date as it currently stands — January 26 — marks the arrival of the British First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 and is viewed by many as an all too painful reminder of the frontier conflict that followed.

While there have been calls for the date of the national holiday to be moved for some time, the debate heated up again this month, with politicians and activists going head-to-head.

Rallies in support of a date change will be held in capital cities on Friday, but the federal government is not supportive.

In a video posted to Twitter on Monday night, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserted Australia Day should be a day that citizens come together, criticising those that were using the debate on the date to “divide” Australians.

In response, however, Greens leader Richard Di Natale predicted the date will change “this decade” given a groundswell of support from the community.

For Affirm Press, working on January 26 is about staying true to the business’ values.

“As a publisher, we celebrate Indigenous stories. So we felt uncomfortable taking off a day that for many of our friends was a poke in the eye,” Affirm Press publishing director Martin Hughes told SmartCompany

Affirm will instead select another day in summer for a replacement holiday.

“Personally I think the date should be February 13 — it’s 10 years ago this February that Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generation,” Hughes says.

“There was a real upswell in Indigenous pride and mainstream support back then, but it hasn’t kicked on in these past 10 years.

“When history is written and we look back at the 21st century, February 13, 2008, could be viewed as a tipping point for a new and inclusive Australian identity.”

Affirm joins the likes of other small firms that have thrown their support behind the cause, including Fitzroy’s Kennedy Nolan Architects, which first boycotted the holiday last year.

“It’s a day not every Australian can celebrate,” director Patrick Kennedy tells SmartCompany

“We say to our staff they can have any other day off they want. There was a general consensus in our practice that we all felt it was something we wanted to do,” he says.

But it’s the impact outside the firm’s walls he hopes will ring loudest.

“The only other thing we can do is make it known to our clients, suppliers and colleagues that’s that what we’re doing, so the gesture has some sort of impact,” he says.

“The power in the gesture is that it makes people think about it and hopefully that will lead to a change.”

Marque Lawyers in Sydney is another business to have taken a stand on the issue. 

“We think it is the better choice. We don’t force anyone to turn up on January 26 — it’s up to them. But the majority of our staff are very supportive,” says managing partner Michael Bradley.

“It’s something we’ll reconsider every year, but I doubt our view will change.”

The moves by these businesses have been welcomed by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, with co-chair Rod Little labelling it a good thing for reconciliation.

“I think the more organisations that do something about it — Triple J being another recent example — the more the message is getting out,” he says.

“l think there are compassionate people out there who are listening to others’ feelings about that day. Australia Day should be a time of uniting the nation.”

Review your staff’s entitlements before making a change

For other small businesses that may be contemplating not taking recognising the public holiday on January 26, it’s important not to overlook any requirements relating to staff entitlements.

Rachel Drew, a partner at law firm Holding Redlich, says businesses are able to make a decision to work through a public holiday or assign a substitute day for one, as these small firms have done.

However, it’s important that employees first check how their staff are classed and what alternative needs to be provided in order to do this.

“The answer will be different for every single business. There are some businesses who, if they ask their staff to work a public holiday, can substitute this with a different holiday, others might have to pay penalty rates,” Drew says.

She warns that employees are able to reject a request to come in on a recognised public holiday, and that they may be entitled to provisions like penalty rates even if they have volunteered to work on that day.

Overall, employers should work out how their workers are classified before suggesting changes to the observance of public holidays. Then they can put forward any alternatives to staff.

“Work out what category they fall into, then employers should be reasonable about it,” Drew says.

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