Sharan Burrow: Paid parental leave is an historic achievement and a lasting legacy

21 June, 2010 | Speeches & Opinion As I prepare to pack my bags for the somewhat daunting task of representing almost 200 million workers around the world as head of the global union movement, I’m proud that Australian unions – in partnership with so many other women from our community – have stood together and delivered paid parental leave after 30 years.

When I joined my first union, we had just won maternity leave in our workplace: the basic right for women to return to their job after the birth of their child.  Never did I imagine that it would be three decades and more before we achieved a national paid parental leave scheme.

At last - paid parental leave for all working women.

Under the scheme, the government will fund 18 weeks leave paid on the federal minimum wage – or up to $10,000 for every woman worker on the birth of their child.

This really is an historic achievement that will deliver better health and financial security for working women.

Better health, because the first weeks are a critical time for recovery from birth and for the bonding between mother and child. But without paid leave, many mothers are forced to return to work too early.

And better financial security, because with two-thirds of Australian women until now deprived of any form of paid parental leave, it has sometimes come down to the choice of having a child or paying the bills.

In a country as wealthy and advanced as Australia, no-one should have to make that kind of choice.

Travelling the world as I frequently do in my job, it is a matter of some shame and embarrassment that Australia was until now one of only two major developed economies – the other one is the US – not to have a paid parental leave scheme.

I’m proud of the role that unions played in seeing this scheme through to fruition.

We campaigned both in the community and in workplaces to raise awareness of the issue, put it on the political agenda, and brought the business community on board to build a consensus for change.

On Tuesday, women from around Australia presented a petition with over 25,000 signatures calling for the legislation to be passed. Despite some silly filibustering by the Coalition and some, frankly, outrageous grandstanding by Steve Fielding, the groundswell for change was unstoppable.

Tony Abbott has been forced to change his tune from the man who said that paid parental leave would happen over his dead body. He now says he’ll impose a multi-billion tax on his big business mates to fund a paid parental leave for women in permanent jobs – even those earning six figure incomes.

For those, like me who have been there from the start, it is simply not believable. It is pie in the sky stuff.

I’m aware that many women would like to see paid parental leave extended to 26 weeks. This remains our long-term aspiration as well.

But those who gripe that this scheme is not comprehensive enough miss its significance. This reform is like Medicare or universal superannuation – once it is there, it can be improved on, but it had to be there in the first place.

Unions will be campaigning hard to see employers who benefit from keeping women in the workplace, top up this payment with full income replacement. We will bargain in workplaces to lift paid leave to 26 weeks with an employer contribution on top of the government funding. And we will be vigilant to ensure that those businesses that already provide paid leave do not seek to wind back this entitlement now a national scheme is in place.

Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party were slow to come to the debate about paid parental leave. And they’ve missed the point.  Paid parental leave is the tip of what needs to be a revolution of women’s working rights.

Women need workplaces that really understand work/life balance – not just pay lip service to it.  This must include the legislated right to request family friendly hours for all people with caring responsibilities.  As well as access to quality, affordable childcare.

And after 40 years women still are waiting for pay equity.  I knew this fight would be long – but I didn’t think we would go backwards.

Shamefully, the gender pay gap has been increasing in Australia.  We are now where we were nearly 25 years ago – in 1986.

Women earn 18 cents less in every dollar than men do.  We need to work 66 more days to get paid the same amount a man does in a year.

The widening gap began in 2006 with the introduction of WorkChoices.  Women suffered more under take-it-or-leave-it individual contracts.  Abbott wants to bring these back – I told you he just doesn’t get it.

Women are more likely to be casual, in insecure employment, working in small businesses.  And again, Abbott wants to take away their protection from unfair dismissal, he really just doesn’t get.

Reducing the pay gap by just 1 per cent would increase GDP per capita by about $260.  That’s $5.5 billion, or 0.5 per cent of total GDP.  To remove the pay gap completely could be worth $93 billion to the Australian economy.

So while I leave my job as ACTU President after 10 years – proud that paid parental leave will be in place from January next year – I know working women in Australia have a long way to go.  And I will be there with them, as I also fight to empower women around the globe.

We have so much more to do here in Australia to deliver true workplace equality for women. With paid parental leave we have achieved a significant milestone, and I know the next generation of amazing women will get on with the job.


Article originally appeared in The Punch 21.06.10
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