The Guardian 17 August, 2005

Childcare under attack

Peter Mac

New extensions to existing parental leave allowances are certain to be terminated under the Howard government’s new industrial relations legislation.

In a historic decision, the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) last week granted working parents the right to an extra year of unpaid parental leave and the right to work on a part-time basis until the child begins school.

The decision was not a total victory for working families. The IRC rejected the ACTU’s application for other leave, and decided that parental leave and part-time work rights should be granted unless employers could prove that they would be unable to find a replacement, or that these concessions would cause inefficiencies or customer problems, or would cost too much.

Although this seems like an obvious "out" for employers, the decision means that they would have to prove their case, rather than simply being able to bluntly say no. However, even this qualified victory for workers will be scrubbed by the Howard government’s new rules.

The government has refused to include these new rights into its new five minimum working standards, which are to replace the 16 "allowable matters" in award, i.e. industrial rights granted by previous IRC decisions.

This means that under the new laws workers will have to "negotiate" for these entitlements with their employers. Kevin Andrews, Federal Minister for Workplace Relations said that the government thought employees and employers should sort such matters out between themselves.

His views were echoed by Peter Hendy, boss of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Indus­try, who spoke in favour of "limiting future national award arbitration and creating more flexible laws governing workplace agreements and employment contracts."

However, as industrial lawyer Charles Power commented tellingly, "Flexibility is really code for allowing employers to get rid of these provisions in the agreement making process". In short, under the Howard government’s new laws, working parents will be entitled to ask for extended leave or part-time work, and employers will be entitled to refuse.

As if this wasn’t enough of a crisis, two other major problems are looming for working parents.

Firstly, access to childcare is likely to become increasingly difficult to obtain. The government’s new "welfare to work" policy means that many parents will be forced to return to work far earlier than they had anticipated. This has forced many retirees to accept responsibility for care of their grandchildren, but it also means that demand for childcare services is skyrocketing.

However, for those who do manage to secure a place in a childcare institution, there’s a second layer of problems. During the last election the Howard government promised enthusiastically that its new child-care rebate would cover 30 percent of childcare costs, but now they have limited the cost benefit to $4000 per annum.

Many parents have had to borrow money to meet the cost of childcare, but have not allowed for this limitation. Moreover, there is now a strong possibility that the government will increase the minimum number of hours that parents have to work under the "welfare to work" rules.

And just to ensure that parents are financially driven to the wall, there will now be a two-year delay in payment of the rebate. The government decided that childcare rebates backdated to July 2004 could be claimed, but then decreed that claims could not be made until after income tax returns had been submitted for the 2005-2006 financial year.

And finally, just to be thorough, the government’s policies will hit those who actually carry out childcare work. The new industrial laws would mean that most childcare workers, who are among the lowest-paid employees in Australia, would lose improvements in pay and conditions won after gruelling industrial struggles over recent years. This includes the recently-won right to convert from casual to permanent employment, and the right to overtime loadings.

The nature of the work, and the intermittent employment to which many childcare workers are subject, means that they will be overwhelmingly subject to demands to sign individual work contracts under the new legislation.

Annie Owens, Child Care Union Secretary of the Liquor, Health and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) commented: "These contracts are secretive documents denying a whole lot of our existing basic workplace rights — including annual leave, unpaid parental leave and personal leave, as well as the weekly hours and wage rates.

"In this environment people doing the same job will be paid differently. Past practice shows us who will get the lower pay if a woman and a man are doing the same job.

"These individual employment contracts undermine co-cooperativeness in the workplace and favour those who prefer a harsh, competitive, stab-you-in-the-back working environment."

Now that the government is gaining the total parliamentary control it has long craved, its callous policies are revealing the hollowness of claimed concerns about the quality of Australian family life and child care.

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