The Guardian 14 March, 2007

Families WorkChoices pressure

Bob Briton

In 2002, John Howard himself referred to the subject of the lack of time left to families after meeting work commitments as a "barbeque stopper". Since then, WorkChoices has further undermined the ability of workers to negotiate hours of work that allow them to attend adequately to the needs of their families. The situation has now moved from being a barbeque stopper to a hot election issue with anger at deteriorating purchasing power and quality of family life nearing boiling point in many households.

Howard & Co sought to buy off opposition to the demands of the 24/7 world of work imposed by neo-liberal globalisation with tax cuts, changes to the Family Tax Benefit and the baby bonus. Introduced in 2004, the bonus has grown from a non-means tested $3,000 grant to a $4,000 one last year and is due to go up to $5,000 this July. Unfortunately for Howard, the craftily directed bribe is being quickly swallowed up as young couples struggle to meet their steep housing and childcare costs and their spiralling food and fuel bills.

Since taking office, the Coalition Government has shot down every attempt to introduce universal paid maternity leave and other forms of carerís leave. While the Commonwealth and state public services and some sections of the banking, finance and hi-tech industries have maintained reasonable standards of maternity leave, the overall picture for Australian women is bleak.

WorkChoices pays meaningless lip service to the idea of maternity leave in one of its "guaranteed" five minimum conditions that allows for one year of unpaid maternity leave. This "guarantee" to rehire the returning worker can be sidestepped by companies claiming "operational reasons". Even this less-than-token measure can be scrapped by the signing of an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA). Before WorkChoices ó and before the government erected a wall of secrecy around the details of current AWAs ó 93 per cent of AWAs had no provision for maternity leave.

The results of this neglect are now in. Australia has a declining fertility rate which now stands at 1.8 children per woman of child-rearing age. It has the eighth lowest workforce participation rate in the OECD for women between the ages of 25 and 44 years. More and more Australians are finding the work/family balance impossible. Federal Treasurer Peter Costelloís suggestion that working families should tackle the future problems of an aging society by having "one for mum, one for dad and one for the country" is a sick joke.

Last week, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) released a report that captures some of the reality of these highly stressed times. Entitled Itís About Time: Women, Men, Work and Family, the study is the result of numerous public meetings, focus groups and 181 submissions. HREOC president John von Doussa noted that patience with current social conditions is wearing thin. "This paper is not simply a talking point; itís a template for action", he said.

Itís About Time contains 45 recommendations to Australian governments to help workers meet their responsibilities as parents and carers. Among them are calls for:

  • A national, government-funded 14 weeks paid maternity leave scheme

  • 12 months unpaid carerís leave

  • Changing the child-care rebate to make it a fortnightly payment

  • Financial assistance for sole parents returning to work

  • Tax breaks for companies providing childcare

  • Extending the super co-contribution to carers

  • Financial incentives to encourage schools to provide after-hours care

  • A national pre-school year for all four-years-olds

  • More data from the Bureau of Statistics and other agencies about work, pay and care

  • Employers to be obliged to reasonably consider requests for flexible work arrangements with a right of appeal for refusals

  • Grants to assist companies to develop better conditions in part-time work

  • A federal government commitment to reduce the gender pay gap

    The response from the big end of town to the report has been predictable. Peter Hendy of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called the report "naÔve" and packed with unrealistic "ambit". "Employers are also very concerned at any proposal that would see more employees suing their employers on matters that can be worked out using a little common sense and mutual understanding. All this would do is reward lawyers and destroy working relationships." The current, unregulated mess that is proving so damaging to families is just fine by the bosses.

    The Federal Government will doubtless ignore HREOCís recommendations for paid maternity leave the same way it ignored calls from the Equal Opportunity Commission in 2002. As university lecturer and social commentator Eva Cox lamented, "How many reports does it take for politicians to deal with this vital issue?" It looks as though it will be up to a future Labor Federal Government to deliver on paid maternity leave and the "right to request" more family-friendly work arrangements. IR spokesperson Julia Gillard and Tanya Plibersek are reported to be ready to put such policies to the ALPís national conference next month.

    Resistance to theses sorts of changes is strong and will continue until fundamental social changes are brought about by a peopleís government. In the meantime, it is vital that the whole labour movement get behind these long overdue interim measures to take some of the pressure off the home-life of workers.

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