This week’s ground-breaking agreement by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) to grant staff up to one year’s paid maternity leave puts the spotlight on those opposing a better deal for women balancing family responsibilities says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

This week’s ground-breaking agreement by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) to grant staff up to one year’s paid maternity leave provides a long overdue focus of public attention on the reluctance of Australian workplaces generally to move into the 21st Century. The ACU’s decision stands in strong contrast to the refusal of the Howard Government to provide any leadership in ending the still widespread unfair treatment of women workers in Australia, especially those women with family responsibilities.

Australia now performs very poorly compared to the rest of the industrialised world in terms of women’s position in the workforce. The underlying cause of this disadvantage is the lack of support for women struggling to balance their working and family lives.

Maternity leave is a key element in this pattern of neglect and discrimination. More than 70 per cent of Australian working women do not have access to paid maternity leave at all. The minority of women who do have paid maternity leave rights are entitled to less than the best public sector standard of 12 weeks paid leave. This compares with 26 weeks in France, 16 weeks in the Netherlands and Vietnam, 14 weeks in Germany and Algeria and 12 weeks in India, Mexico and Indonesia.

Australia lags in several other measures of family friendliness in the workplace. A new report (Balancing Work and Family Life: Helping Parents into Paid Employment) from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows Australia has the lowest level of employment of single parents (mainly women) of young children in the developed world. Just over 30 per cent of Australian sole parents are in the workforce, compared to rates of between 60 and 70 per cent in most European countries and north America. The OECD says in the report that “it is important that there is a sufficiently high employment rate for this group, because of the danger of loss of contact with the labour market, and decline in human capital”.

An International Labor Organisation (ILO) study (Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management) released this week reported Australia has the lowest level of female managers of all industrialised countries, with just 1.3 per cent of executive positions held by women, compared to 5.1 per cent in the United States. On this score, Australia ranked last of 41 countries. The study also showed that the women who are in Australian management positions are paid on average 12 per cent less than their male counterparts, despite having more education and formal qualifications.

The value of women’s work in Australia has never been properly recognised. Australian women workers are on average paid $166 a week less than men. Official statistics show the wages/gender gap has worsened under the Howard Government. Australian Taxation Office data released in June shows the average taxable income for men in 1998-99 ($34,460) was more than 46 per cent higher than for women ($23,599) – an increase of more than one per cent since 1995-96. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that the gap between male and female average weekly pay packets increased from $158.40 in May 1998 to $166.10 in May 2000.

On top of this, women experience far higher levels of job insecurity than men. This is partly because women occupy 68 per cent of all part-time positions and 70 per cent of all casual positions, Australia the highest proportion of female employment in part-time work of any OECD country except the Netherlands. Unemployment figures from the ABS last week suggested a more alarming development, with women accounting for two-thirds of the 79,000 full-time jobs which were lost last month. The Federal Government’s plan – revealed in a leaked Cabinet submission last week – to allow even greater casualisation of the workforce by exempting small businesses from award protections will only make this situation worse.

The Howard Government confirmed its indifference to the insecurity of many working women when it opposed the ACTU’s application for a Parental Leave Test Case in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission earlier this year. In May a Full Bench of the Commission rejected the Government’s arguments and granted a new right of 12 months unpaid maternity leave for up to two million casual workers.

Similarly, the Government has ignored recommendations from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that it fund research on international maternity leave policies. The ACTU proposes that the Commonwealth properly investigate the various models of maternity leave used overseas, including different funding options involving employers, social security and insurance systems. The findings of such an investigation should be used to develop a comprehensive maternity leave system for Australia, using as a basis the ILO’s international standard of 14 weeks paid leave. The Howard Government’s refusal to even take these moderate and reasonable steps towards ending the unfair treatment of women employees with family responsibilities will not be forgotten at the ballot box later this year.