If the cultural shift required in the workplace to give greater security to working families was broadly accepted the ACTU would not be locked in an adversarial Work and Family test case argues ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

A Revolution In Women’s Participation

Australia’s workforce has experienced a revolution in women’s participation. There is now almost a convergence of the numbers of men and women participating in the workforce with 44.6% of people of people actively engaged in full time or part time work being women. Unfortunately this has not been matched with a cultural shift which provides for the necessary flexibility to enable women and men to manage work and family. Where it does it has come at a price with 1/3 women employed as casual workers and 80% of part time work – the overwhelming preference for women – being casual. Add to this the equal pay gap where women take home almost $300 less, on average, per week than men and we start to unveil a workplace culture that has change little in decades.

Harvester Man Is Officially Dead

The fact is that Australian workplaces were designed for men, by men of another era. You all know the industrial pin up boy of this era – Harvester Man. In fact we both know and love him – our dad, uncle, grandad – went to work, worked hard, came home to the comfort of slippers at the door, tea on the table and the expectation of a relaxing evening. This was indeed thanks to the goodly judge by the name of Higgins who determined a rate of pay sufficient to raise a wife and three children. Now I need to be fair, there was every expectation that he would mow the lawn on the weekends!

In case you think that this humourous, even affectionate, account of another era is exaggerated consider the following excerpt from a 1950’s home economics textbook.

(Ms Leslie Blankship from Columbus Ohio).

Have dinner ready: Plan ahead even the night before to have a delicious meal on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal is part of the warm welcome needed.

Prepare yourself: Take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.

Clear away the clutter: Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. Then run a dust cloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too.

Prepare the children: Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair, and if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

Minimize all noise: At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of washer, dryer, dishwasher, or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quite. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad to see him. Some don’ts: Don’t greet him with problems or complaints. Don’t complain if he’s late for dinner. Count this as minor compared with what he might have gone through that day.

Make him comfortable: Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax-unwind.

Listen to him: You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.

Make the evening his: Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to be home and relax.

The goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.”

Workforce Change – the Challenge Of The 21st Century

The world has definitely changed though I suspect there are a few slippers still waiting at the door and the odd bit of desire from a man or three here today. Sorry guys but, while the ghost of Harvester Man still lurks out there, the fact is that working arrangements have not adapted to the new reality and I suspect they don’t work for many of you as well.

Despite Australian enterprises being able to tap into a great reservoir of women’s talent energy and intellect the majority of beneficiaries in the Australian business community, or indeed Governments, have not considered how to support the necessary cultural shift to make workplaces family friendly.

It is still women who shoulder the bulk of and the burden of family care.

This means many families, particularly those with intense caring responsibilities, are seeking more flexible working arrangements including increased access to permanent part time work in order to balance their work and family responsibilities. The required cultural shift would be not only good for women but increasingly men. Further it would ensure greater productivity through reduced stress and higher retention rates as a result of greater choice. The handful of Australian companies who have taken a lead in this regard can and are making a business case for family friendly work practices.

First Steps

The ACTU has promoted a range of measures that provide choice for working parents. Building on the foundations of parental leave, including paid maternity leave and supported by accessible and affordable childcare, workplace practice should ensure as a minimum:

  • Extend the current provision for unpaid maternity leave (parental leave)
    from 12 months to 24 months.
  • Ensure that full time employees returning from parental leave have the right
    to return to their place of work part-time.
  • Allow employees to “buy” up to six weeks a year extra annual
    leave through averaged salary adjustments – these could be used for school
  • Allow employees to request changes to start and finish times – particularly
    to accommodate school and child care appointments.
  • Ensure employees have the right to reasonable unpaid emergency leave for
    family responsibilities.
  • Work & Family Test Case

    You might recognise this as the ACTU’s work and family test case claim. All no cost or low cost items and all in practice either internationally through legislation or company practice or in Australia though bargaining or corporate practice.

    A week out from the beginning of the case we have only settled two issues:

  • the extension from 5 – 10 days of available leave for caring
    responsibilities, and
  • the capacity for casual workers or other workers without paid leave to take
    up to two days of “unpaid” leave, in any single period, to deal with
    family illness or crisis without fear of losing their job.
  • While these settlements are important and give greater security to working families it begs the question as to why the rest of the case cannot be settled.

    To read the evidence of the employers highlights the very need for a test case. If the cultural shift required was broadly accepted we would not be locked in an adversarial case. Individually women are winning cases before HREOC that amount to discrimination on the basis of work and family yet the employers representatives are opposing the provision of flexibility, a cause they champion when its in their interests. They refuse to acknowledge that voluntary change is too slow and that we need to improve the rights of working parents to request greater flexibility.

    The opponents of equity and opportunity will always predict that the sky will fall in – but it rarely if ever does. To read the employer and government evidence and to contrast it with their public statements that acknowledge the demand for family friendly provisions you can only question their motives.

    For a Government with John Howard at its helm it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that he would like to still live in that 50’s home economics text – actually I think Jeanette ensures that he does! For the employers, it is incredibly short sighted and sad to say driven, in large part, by male managers who are so afraid of a “right to request” workplace flexibility being given to employees, that they are prepared to deny themselves the opportunity for talented women and men with caring responsibilities.

    The British legislation has just been reviewed and the results demonstrate that the majority of employers would be happy to extend the requests for flexibility beyond employees with family responsibilities.

    By contrast consider the evidence of Qantas. Just having been praised for their family friendly work practices announced last Wednesday they will appear as witnesses next week to claim that part time work is not available because it is not possible the more senior levels.

    Or even more incredible take Chubb Security who argue that flexibility is not often available in their industry. In fact in 2004 they ask job applicants the question “ do you have any commitments (family or otherwise) or interests which will prevent you being available to meet your employed duty obligations (e.g. restrictions on time availability)”

    The importance of rights and laws and leadership on these type of issues cannot be underestimated. Despite initial employer resistance to the UK work and family assistance measures, employers report little difficulty in implementing them. For employees, the legislation has empowered over one million British mothers and fathers to initiate discussions with their employers about flexible work and more than 80% have reached agreement with their employer.

    Our Demography Demands Change

    Australia can spend the next two decades as a victim of our shrinking

    Workforce or we can maximise participation by changing practice.

    In 2002 the workforce grew by 140,000. By 2011 that figure will go down to only 40,000 and 20 years hence we will be approaching zero growth.

    The Treasurer’s inter-generational report predicts that this slowing in labour supply will be accompanied by slower economic growth and a deteriorating fiscal position. However, alternative models of labour force participation by Treasury officials paint a more optimistic future. The right policy interventions could shift the labour force participation rate closer to the eightieth percentile of the OECD, resulting in improved growth and fiscal outlook. Of course, a key source of under-utilised labour are mothers and carers.

    Work arrangements including the availability of quality, secure part time work, family friendly roster schedules, special leave and career breaks need to become a part of Australia’s accepted work culture.

    Add to this greater flexibility for older workers and we can change the future predicted by demographics alone.

    We know that increasing numbers of workers are reporting difficulty in meeting their work and family commitments but men’s and women’s reactions to this are different. Fathers work arrangements are largely unchanged and they bear the cost of the conflict through higher stress, difficulties in home relationships and feelings of time pressure. Mothers, on the other hand, adjust their labour market participation and bear the cost through loss of job security, job tenure and seniority, access to careers and training. For mothers of young children in particular, the trade off for a job with hours that match the provision of childcare is casual employment.

    Currently more than 80% of women who work as casuals work part-time.

    This includes the more than 400,000 working mothers with young children that are casual.

    For them, this means no holidays, no sick leave, little certainty budgeting and all too often no access to finance.

    Currently many of Australia’s working families are under financial pressure. Seventy percent of all workers and eighty-five percent of women earn less than $52,000 per year. Of all new jobs since 2000, almost forty-one percent earn under $500 per week with almost sixty-five percent earning less than $600 per week. Add to this the increase in the cost of services since the Howard government came to office –

    53% increase in education; 50% increase in childcare; 46% increase in dental; %28 increase in health; 37% increase in housing – and we start to build up a serious understanding of this stress.

    Despite this parents are telling us that time, more than money, is what they would value most.

    Time to leave work early and pick up children from school or childcare.

    Time off during school holidays and for when a child is sick.

    Even time gained from less commuting by working at home.

    Parents need flexible working hours so they can spend time with their children or aging parents when they need to.

    This is what the push for family flexible workplaces is all about.

    Currently in Australia the proportion of couples with children where both parents work has increased from 44% in 1981 to 62% in 2000.

    The proportion of single mothers in paid work increased from one-third in 1985 to one-half in 2000.


    Even the pope has got into the act. In a letter to Catholic bishops he acknowledges that it is okay for women to work an “appropriate work schedule”. While we might claim he is desperately trying to catch up with the real world there is a school of thought that suggests that his view that women still choosing domestic duties shouldn’t be financially disadvantaged is spearheading a case for payment for domestic duties. Indeed this may be the real revolution as it might make house cleaning more attractive to men. Harvester Man is dead, wonder woman is tired, so hail to the metro-sexual!