If the Government wants to keep women in the workforce, it will need to get involved in forcing industry to accommodate the lives of all workers argues The Age columnist Pamela Bone.

I’m concentrating on casual work as it affects women because that is what I know most about. And I’m starting with a personal anecdote because that’s the way I tend to start most things.

When my children were very young, before I got into journalism, I worked at the SPC cannery in Shepparton during the fruit canning season, which went from late January to the end of April.

It was casual, seasonal work. The shift went from 6pm until 2am. Along with 20 or so other women (on my section, there were many different sections) I stood in front of a moving belt laden with halved peaches. The job was to try to pick out as many rotten bits out as you could before the belt moved on to the cookers. The belt was undulating and it made you seasick until you got used to it.

It was extremely noisy, with the sound of the cans crashing behind you and overhead, and it was tiring, being on your feet for 8 hours with only a couple of short breaks, and it was often very cold, as the season went on.

But it was well paid. And it was work women with young children could do. I had four children under five when I started, the youngest being five months old (with my first pay I bought her a little pink jumpsuit). It meant giving them a very early dinner and bath – because fathers couldn’t be expected to do this, they were doing a big enough favour just by looking after them until bedtime – this was in the 1970s.

You got to bed by 3am if you were lucky, and if you were lucky you got three hours sleep before the baby woke up to be fed. But you could do it because it was only for 8 to 10 weeks of the year.

There were probably about 1000 women working there during the season. There was camaraderie. You could talk to your neighbours, though you had to shout to hear each other over the noise. It was a matter of honour to get all those brown pieces of peaches out so they wouldn’t get in the cans. I make this point because it is often forgotten that factory workers also take pride in their work.

I had been working on the belt for a few weeks when a manager came up to me and said I was to have a job in the laboratory, because I was one of their best workers. This was a much easier and higher status job, involving wearing a white coat and walking around the lines, selecting 10 cans at random and weighing them to make sure the average weight was up to the right specification.

Now this job, I should say, was undeserved. I wasn’t one of the best workers at all – there were other women who were much faster than I was – it was just that some manager liked the look of me (bear in mind it was 30 years ago!). I mention this only to show that who gets the best jobs is not always a matter of merit.

However hard it is for women to combine work and looking after children now, it was much harder then. There was no formal childcare at all, at least in Shepparton. We looked after each others’ children when we could. Later I worked casually at the TAB, while a neighbour looked after my youngest child – by this time the other three were at school – and I looked after hers while she worked there too. The manager, a woman, made sure we weren’t rostered on the same day. This was another of the few options for women then.

I’ve also delivered pamphlets and minded children, worked in a shoe shop and a chemists shop. Reminds me of that old song:

`For a while, I drove an elevator
I became, a wine and brandy waiter
All the time, I knew that later,
I would be, a higher rater
Gonna be, a big time operator!’

Except I didn’t. If anyone had told me then that one day I’d be writing for the Age I would have thought they were mad.

Later still I had another casual job, as a proof-reader at the Shepparton News. This was the worst of all, because often there wasn’t much work and you waited in vain for the phone to ring. But this was where I progressed into journalism, which led me eventually to The Age.

So. Casual work suits some women, and some men, at some stages of their lives. I was glad to have the job at the cannery because there was no other way I could earn any money. However, it didn’t accrue me any superannauation for my old age. There was no sick pay and no holiday pay, and no certainty you would be one of the employed ones the next season – there were always more wanting jobs than vacancies.

For most workers, casual work probably has more drawbacks than advantages. It does not surprise me that research presented at this conference shows around 60 per cent of Australia’s 2 million casual workers dislike the irregularity of income, the unpredictability of working hours, the toll it takes on family life, and the fact that their work was not respected.

There’s a point. If casual work is the excellent thing employer groups are now arguing it is, why should it not be as respected as full-time, permanent work?

Professor Barbara Pocock’s research shows about 65 per cent of people in casual jobs were negative about casual work. As a man quoted by Paul Robinson in an article on casual work in Saturday’s Age said, you have little control over your hours, and in many cases are dependent on the good graces of the boss or manager. “If the boss doesn’t take a shine to you, down the pecking order you go,’ he said. Going on holiday is almost impossible to plan and hard to afford.

Casuals now make up almost 30 per cent of the workforce. Women are much more likely than men to be in part time employment, and more likely to be in casual employment. Some women like this. As a woman quoted in Paul Robinson’s article, who works casually as a receptionist a couple of days a week, said `It suits me because if my kids are sick and I need to stay at home, I won’t feel guilty about it.’

But this woman has a husband who is the main breadwinner. This is not always the case and is increasingly less the case than it used to be. There are more single parent families. Women are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as men. Despite the adoption of the equal pay principle thirty years ago, women still earn less than their male counterparts.

Women – and men – who work in casual jobs have difficulty in obtaining loans. Even if they could, insecurity of employment is a huge disincentive to buying a house. Most of today’s aged pensioners are in a reasonably good position because they own their own homes. The same cannot be said of older retired people in the future – if indeed there is such a thing as an age pension in the future – who will have to pay rent. Today’s insecure work has serious implications for the future.

The old division between “working” and stay-at-home mothers is a little passe these days. Today’s stay-at-home mother is just as likely to be tomorrow’s working mother, worrying about getting away in time to pick up children or how to fit in the shopping for their dinner. Mrs Janette Howard might have left the workforce for good once she had children, but she’s one of a small minority of women. 70 per cent of mothers in Australia work.

But as Pru Goward, sex discrimination commissioner, has pointed out, Australian mothers still work guiltily, believing they are failing either their families or their employer, or both. This lingering disapproval of working mothers is reflected in government programs at state and federal level. There are still insufficient childcare places and childcare is still so expensive that it’s not worth working for many women. Australia and the US are the only two OECD countries without a nationally-funded paid maternity leave scheme.

Things might improve. When you get the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader competing over who spent most time reading to their children you know things are changing.

There’s a reason for this. A government that suddenly starts talking about how important it is to help parents manage work and family is a government that has belatedly realised that women work and women have children, not one or the other; and that we in fact need them to do both, if the declining fertility rate and resultant ageing of the population and shrinking of the workforce is not to accelerate.

Why then does it continue to be made so hard for them? However welcome a $3000 baby bonus or a $600 family supplement might be, the Howard Government has done little about the crux of the problem, which is making workplaces more sympathetic to the needs of working parents.

Some women with small babies might want (or need) to work full-time; most don’t. Many don’t want to return even part-time when their babies are 14 weeks old either. Yet women who want to stay home for more than a year risk not being able to return to the same job – even in the public service, which should be expected to be a leader in family-friendliness.

A woman I know who took maternity leave, then long service leave, then some unpaid leave so that she could be home with her child until she was two was given an ultimatum to return to her job. She was then told she couldn’t work only two days a week as she wanted but would have to work at least three; and that her place of work had been changed to an outer suburb, meaning at least an hour’s drive twice a day.

Because it was impossible for her to manage this with three children she has resigned – which of course gives ammunition to employers who complain that jobs are kept open for women on maternity leave who then decide not to come back at all.

Other women returning after maternity leave have told of being given the boring projects that no one else wants to do; or alternatively, being expected to do the same amount of work in three days that other workers do in five. One woman who has been acting in a position for years has been told there’s no hope of getting the position permanently unless she agrees to work full-time.

Many employers have an unreasonable opposition to the idea of two workers sharing a job, which is an ideal solution for some mothers. And when they do allow it, the women are made to feel they are being done a great favour. “There are often little asides such as ‘heading off now, are we?’ ‘Nice to be some people’ etc,” one woman wrote to me.

Another, who has been allowed to work from home because she has a baby, is pathetically grateful and feels compelled to produce far more than her colleagues who work in the office.

As long as they are productive, women – and men too – should be able to work from home, job-share or work part-time, with the expectation that their careers will be taken just as seriously as those of full-time workers.

We’ve raised a generation of highly educated young women who expect to have a career and children. But there are a great number of disillusioned 30 and 40 year olds who, finding that they are not taken seriously because they also have children, are tempted to drop out of the workforce altogether. This doesn’t mean they will have more children. But it does means employers are missing out on some of the best and brightest workers.

If the Government wants to keep women in the workforce, it will have to do more than hand out payments for having babies. It will need to get involved in forcing industry to accommodate the lives of all workers.

What needs to be done is to complete the “partial emancipation” of women, who are now free to go out to work but are still responsible for most child care and housework; introduce family-friendly work policies, good, state-funded child care and generous parental leave, and make part-time work as secure and respected as full-time work.

The increased casualisation of the workforce will achieve none of these ends.