Sharan Burrow: Women's contribution to work valued at last

What a wait it's been. Thirty years after Australian women and unions first began campaigning for paid maternity leave, the Rudd Government has finally delivered.

This is a legacy for women of my generation to hand on to our daughters and granddaughters.

It is about dignity and respect for women. We congratulate the Rudd Government for doing what its predecessors could not and saying, as other countries did long ago, that we value the contribution of women in the workforce.

The 18-week universal paid maternity leave scheme which will be in tonight's federal budget corrects a massive market and policy failure that has seen Australia become one of only two OECD nations that do not offer some form of paid maternity leave.

How shameful for a country as wealthy and prosperous as Australia to have been left behind by not only the likes of the United Kingdom, Canada and most European countries, but even Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.

Paid maternity leave is also about creating a productive economy. A government-funded paid maternity leave scheme must be judged as a long-term economic and social investment to retain jobs and keep productivity on track.

The millions of women who now make up nearly half the workforce are more educated and skilled than at any other time in Australia's history. On average, those taking time out to start a family already have 10 years experience in the workforce.

It would be economically unproductive and an extravagant waste of public and private investment to see women drop out, or forced out, of the workforce indefinitely.

We can't afford to lose the knowledge, expertise and spending power of our working women; they are essential to the continuing economic growth of this country.

Australia's most progressive employers have already blazed a trail on paid maternity leave. They know women are more likely to return to their jobs after a decent period of paid leave when they have a child.

Staff retention rates in some of these businesses are as high as 90 per cent, minimising the cost of rehiring and retraining.

Just last week, mining giant BHP Billiton set a new benchmark, offering 18 weeks at full pay to its female workforce.

Chief executive Marius Kloppers was spot on when he said: "Providing a minimum global standard that is also highly competitive will help us to attract and retain the very best people in the industry."

But savvy bosses also understand that paid maternity leave is about much more than the money: it engenders a powerful sense of support, loyalty and trust, and the reward runs both ways.

The minority of women benefiting from such civilised conditions are largely white-collar professionals.

It's the army of casuals, part-timers, self-employed and low-paid women with no access to any form of paid maternity leave who are most vulnerable, and much more so in a volatile economic climate.

They are often the primary carers in the vast majority of Australian families that rely on two incomes to pay bills, rent or mortgage.

Even in recent prosperous years, the cost of living has been placing an unhealthy pressure on many working mothers to return to work too early to keep the family financially afloat.

The social, psychological and medical costs of having women back at work before they have physically recovered or established breastfeeding and a bond with their newborn babies cannot be measured or tolerated in any forward-looking nation.

After 30 years of campaigning, the wait until the scheme commences in 2011 will feel like the blink of an eye.

It is disappointing to hear some employer lobby groups already whingeing and finding ways to frustrate the implementation of the scheme.

The truth is that employers have got off lightly. The government-funded scheme will not cost them an extra cent.

The government-funded scheme is a great first step. Over the coming years, unions will bargain in the workplace for improvements for working parents in these areas:

  • Employers should top up the minimum wage of $543.78 so that there is full income replacement.
  • Employers should continue to make a contribution to their workers' superannuation while they are on maternity leave. This would be a modest cost of less than $50 a week.
  • Lifting the length of paid leave to 26 weeks, in line with the World Health Organisation's recommended standard for breastfeeding.
  • Fathers' entitlement to two weeks' paid parental leave so families can bond together.

  • The ACTU and unions will continue to help working women bargain for measures to help balance their work and family responsibilities. But by all means, let's celebrate this historic achievement. It's long overdue.

    Originally appeared in Newcastle Herald 12.05.09