Ged Kearney: launch of 2010 Australian Work and Life Index

03 August, 2010 | Speeches & Opinion Adelaide Hilton


Thank you for the invitation to launch this important report from the Centre for Work and Life.

Work is crucial to who we are.

It is an identifier – and is part of what defines us. It pays our bills and funds our lifestyle. It gives our life meaning.

But we all know life is about so much more than work.

The Australian Work and Life Index is a valuable contribution to national debate about what is one of the most pressing issues confronting all workers in the increasingly hectic modern economy: how to balance work with family, leisure and the other pursuits that make life worthwhile.

The Index began in 2007, and four years down the track now we are starting to get a pretty comprehensive picture of how work interferes with responsibilities or activities outside of the workplace, how often it restricts time with family and friends, impacts on communities, and affects people’s overall satisfaction with life.

These are all issues that we spend a lot of time thinking about in the union movement.

From our own conversations with members, we know that the balance between work and life is getting harder, not easier.

It got especially out of kilter during the years of the Howard Government and WorkChoices, when ordinary workers’ control over their own destiny was constantly eroded by the use of AWA individual contracts to undermine the safety net established by awards and through enterprise bargaining.

The Fair Work Act signals a clear change in direction. It restores rights at work, and adds new entitlements, including the right for employees to request family flexible arrangements at work.

The Labor Government has delivered a further major advance to help workers manage their family commitments, and that is Paid Parental Leave. This is a landmark achievement that has taken decades of campaigning by unions, and was finally delivered by a Labor Government.

This new scheme begins in five months, on on New Year’s Day 2011, providing a guarantee of 18 weeks paid leave for all primary carers, at virtually no cost to business, and has full support across the community, including business.

Unlike Tony Abbott’s fantasy scheme, which he has today announced he is putting on the backburner for another 18 months. It’s not surprising: we all know what Tony Abbott really thinks of paid parental leave.

He knows his scheme will never get the support of business – it’s an opportunisitic ploy to mislead Australian families.

These initiatives by Labor are a good start, and unions recognise that we need to build on them by using the guaranteed rights to collective bargaining  to lock in work-life flexibility for all workers.

But understand this as well, the election of a Liberal Party with a clear agenda to reintroduce individual contracts that tip the balance towards employers will be a major setback to a better alignment of work and life.

One of the many privileges as ACTU President is to be able to meet with workers from all around the country.

I’ve been in the role for just over a month now, and I am glad in a way that I have started bang in the middle of a federal election. My staff have had me working hard in campaigning land.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in trucking yards for breakfast with drivers at dawn, serving sausages to nurses and orderlies in hospitals at lunchtime, call centres, railway stations, building sites and factories. Everywhere I go, I meet decent, hardworking people whose aspirations are simple, yet so often unfulfilled.

They want a secure job, a job at which they can earn enough to provide for their family without forfeiting precious time.

They want to be safe at work.

They want to be respected and consulted by their employer.

They want productive and satisfying work that they have some control over, and that encourages them to learn new skills.

They want to be treated fairly and women, equally.

They want their workplace to be environmentally and worker-friendly.

We all have a responsibility to these workers.

In particular, we have a responsibility to help them better balance work and life. If work becomes so dominant, so overpowering, then it simply makes life less worthwhile.

So many of the findings in this report ring true to me.  As a working mother I have spent my career as a nurse, working full time shift work while bringing up four children.

In fact in a period which I call my dark ages, I juggled full time shift work, two children at school, one at sessional kinder, and one baby in family day care. I remember very little more than a haze of constant panic at being late.

But it also rings true from the stories I’ve heard travelling the nation during this election campaign.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the economic slowdown and a fall in aggregate hours worked has not been associated with any less work-life interference.

Barbara and Natalie will give you a more detailed presentation about the findings of this year’s index, but I note that:

  • 60% of women and almost half of men feel time pressured;
  • the majority of working Australians say that work has negative effects on the rest of their life; that women and workers in service industries are especially hard hit;
  • and that the majority of workers worked half a day more or less than they would prefer.
The report explodes the myth that casual work better helps workers reconcile work and care. Casualisation suits employers, not workers, who crave the job security that casual work doesn’t provide. Something that has been told to me over and over again by people in the electorates.

In short, we have a long hours culture and the “flexibility revolution” of the last 20 years has failed to deliver for workers. Flexibility so often has been the domain of employers, suiting their needs rather than employees.

The work of the Centre for Work and Life is essential to provide an empirical basis to the stories that union members tell us all the times about their working lives.

For, unfortunately, to anyone who mixes regularly with Australian workers none of this is news.

We face major challenges for national prosperity, and unless we begin to address these issues of casualisation, of long hours, of work and family balance, we will fail and workforce participation and productivity will suffer.

At the same time that the Australian government, industry and unions were successfully dealing with the difficulties posed by the worst economic crisis in a lifetime, saving jobs and financial viability, significant reform of our industrial relations system was being undertaken.

WorkChoices under Howard had created a culture of fear in the workplace. With rights diminished, workers were afraid of losing their job if they spoke up or said no.

The new Labor Government’s first Act in office was to ban new individual employment contracts, improve the unfair dismissal laws and create a fair safety net of employment conditions.

From this base Australian unions have developed an agenda for working people and their families, an agenda I am fully behind in my new role as ACTU President.

Our agenda includes working with the Government to devise a long term plan to ensure we are a society that creates and sustains good jobs with stable incomes for working people and their families.

A prosperous economy must be one where the fruits of hard work are also enjoyed by life outside of work.

The future agenda for fair and productive workplaces must consider:

  • Casualisation, other forms of insecure work and volatile incomes.
  • Ways to ensure worker input, representation and consultation at work.
  • Ensuring regulation aligns with the needs of workers and reality of the economy.
  • Skill and workforce development.
  • The need to align working hours with the financial and family needs of workers.
  • The reconciliation of work, education and care.
  • Pay equity for female dominated professions who provide invaluable yet underpaid services

Unions will continue to push for improvements that enable all workers, including casual and part-time employees, to:

  • Have greater control over their work arrangements in order to meet their caring responsibilities. Employers should be obliged to give proper consideration to an employee’s request for flexible work or their request to return to work part-time from parental leave.
  • Access enhanced paid personal/carers leave so that it is available to care for all dependents (including extended family) and for a broader range of caring responsibilities than currently allowed.  
  • Maintain their take home pay when taking paid personal/carers leave.
  • Have an increased amount of paid personal/carer’s leave; and include the provision of palliative care leave as a minimum standard.

If Australian voters make the wrong decision on 21 August, I fear the work-life collision will get worse.
Most Australians believe that Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party remain committed to the principles of WorkChoices, and will reintroduce the worst aspects of WorkChoices.

In particular, they will reintroduce statutory individual contracts (AWAs by another name), and attack important conditions like penalty rates and minimum hours of work.

So, please excuse me for any partisanship, but Australian unions will be campaigning until election day to prevent the return of WorkChoices because this would be a terrible outcome for working Australians.

Before I hand over to Barbara and Natalie, I just want to say how important it is to have robust research about what is going on in Australian workplaces, what workers think, and how we can improve the wellbeing of employees and their households.

Recent years have seen repetitive waves of industrial relations reform, much of which has affected workers and their families in negative ways. We need systematic research about such changes and how outcomes can be improved.

Reports like this one give us important insights into what really counts, people’s living experiences and we need to make sure we continue this kind of thorough, deep and policy-oriented research going into the future.

And I congratulate the research group at the Centre for Work and Life - Sandra, Natalie and Barbara and their team.

The Centre’s ongoing efforts in researching the changing nature of work and its effects on household, family and community life makes an important contribution to knowledge in Australia and I am delighted to be able to launch these important findings, and this report, today.

Thank you.
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