Harvester Man and his model family are officially dead and we need a raft of new measures to re-calibrate work and family life in Australia argues ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

A month ago, when I was launching the ACTUs Work and Family test case, I met a young woman called Drita Mujovic.

She was a bright, enthusiastic woman in her early 20s and the mother of a ten-month-old baby.

Drita told me she was enjoying motherhood but really missing work. In fact, when you scratched the surface, she was quite angry that she had effectively lost her job while on maternity leave.

Drita had worked at an engineering company full-time for four and a half years. When she became pregnant, her boss led her to believe there would be a job when she came back from maternity leave.

Twelve months ticked by and Drita asked her boss if she could ease back into the job, working three, maybe four, days a week. She was prepared to be flexible.

Her boss was not. He replied with a flat rejection. It was all or nothing. No give, no take.

Could Drita work five days a week, 8 till 6? Could she leave her little son in daycare all day, every day? Could she and her husband afford the cost of full-time child-care?

Thousands of Australian women are confronted by these questions every month and the dilemma is seen as their problem. The onus is on them to decide between all or nothing. Most employers chose to believe it has nothing to do with them.

The truth is that these rigid working patterns, designed to fit snugly around the traditional family of the 1950s, do not fit the picture anymore. They havent for some time.

Harvester Man was the traditional working man defined in 1907 by the industrial courts. He worked full time and earned a living wage to feed and clothe a wife and three children. Well, I can tell you, 100 years later, Harvester Man and his model family are officially dead and have been at rest for some time.

Yet much of Australia refuses to believe hes really gone. Harvester Man was such a convenient, simple model. Our institutions were built around his lifestyle and pattern of work and many still operate on that basis.

Governments, employers, even some unions refuse to accept that the world of work is now a much more complex and fragmented place.

Drita Mujovics boss was clinging to the past when he effectively forced her to resign from the job that she loved and had carried out professionally for 4 years. At age 22 its a bitter experience to be discarded like that.

If Australia is to evolve as a fair, decent and productive society, the challenge of embracing the new world of work must be met square on, right now.

We already lag behind many OECD countries, not to mention a handful of third world countries that, amazingly, cater better for working women and their families than our own.

Lets look at some statistics central to this debate:

There are more women are in the workforce than ever before in our history

  • 70% of women of childbearing age work
  • 62% of couples with children work
  • 50% of single mothers are in the workforce
  • 54% of mothers return to work before their childs second birthday
  • 36% of mothers return before their child is 12 months old
  • 2.3 million Australians, or about a quarter of employees, care for someone because of their age or disability.

    There has been a cultural shift. In the majority of families, all adults are in paid employment; for many, two incomes do not equate to luxury they are a necessity to keep up with the cost of living.

    And with divorce creating a higher number of single parent families, more single mums work these days to ease their economic burden.

    This means only a third of children in couple families, and half of those in lone parent families, have a stay at home parent. The age of the breadwinner with the perfect nuclear family is long past. The additional stress on parents dealing with before and after school care arrangements are significant.

    These changes in the working lives of families have come up against changes in the way work is organised. While presenting women with an increased opportunity to work, the quality and conditions of the jobs on offer leave a lot to be desired.

    In response to global competitive pressure, jobs have gone in two directions: on the one hand there has been an extension of long hours work, with 25% of full-time workers clocking up more than 45 hours a week. In August 2002 around 1.7 million people worked more than 50 hours per week, double the number in 1982.

    On the other hand, casual jobs now account for nearly a third of the workforce, the majority of them part-time. If the trend continues, half the Australian workforce will be casually employed by 2050.

    Guess who occupies most of these insecure, low-paid casual jobs? Women in fact 40% of working mothers have no leave entitlements.

    Indeed, Australian women on average earn less than men, even when the effects of part-time employment and mens access to paid overtime are discounted. This is true for all industries and in both the public and private sector. When the effects of part-time employment and paid overtime are excluded, a comparison of full-time ordinary time earnings shows that women earn $146.70 per week less than men, or 84% of full-time male ordinary time earnings.

    Gender pay inequity has continued as a feature of contemporary Australia. The 1980s saw a gradual improvement in the gender pay gap for full-time adults (from 81% to 84%). However, the 1990s have seen this progress halt, and the Australian pay equity ratio has hovered around 84% throughout the decade.

    Pay inequity also extends to assumptions about family responsibilities, and a lack of supportive work and family measures mean women experience career breaks to care for family members, or opt for part-time or casual work (and are employed for fewer hours than men in such work), with a consequent loss of career advancement prospects.

    And, beyond wages, 31% of women compared to 24% of men report no access to leave entitlements.

    Apart from the poor pay and lack of leave, flexible working hours are on the employers terms only.

    Employers dictate when employees will work, often at short notice. Where work is irregular this is particularly difficult for families. Sometimes casuals are called on to work back-to-back shifts. Other times there may be no work for a week. So planning work around children or elderly relatives is diabolically hard. Should you be unavailable for a shift, youre likely to be overlooked for future shifts. Casuals pay a penalty for meeting their family needs.

    The sad irony is that working mothers, the people who most need flexibility in our workforce, are least likely to have it.

    Flexibility is not to be found in the world of of full-time work either. Young Drita Mujovic decided she couldnt go back to full time work, but financially many mothers dont feel they have a choice.

    Theres a lot of guilt out there as women attempt the high wire juggling act of full-time work and full-on family. 67% of full time working mums say theyd prefer part-time work

    Its no surprise that 87 per cent of women in a recent ACTU survey of 8000 workers nominated family friendly provisions as their workplace priority.

    Flexibility and Choice

    The ACTU believes a raft of measures is required to re-calibrate work and family life in Australia.

    Last month, we launched a test case in the Industrial Relations Commission which, if successful, will set some new standards for employers to follow and create a more humane pace of life for working women in particular.

    The idea is to provide flexibility and choice at work during key phases of family life.

    Let me outline some of our claims.

    During the pregnancy and birth phase, workers would be entitled to up to 24 months unpaid maternity or parental leave. This would include 8 simultaneous weeks of unpaid leave for both parents.

    This could be further extended until the child is school age, by agreement subject to the operational requirements of the workplace.

    Employers would be required to consult with employees about significant changes to their job during this period.

    In early childhood, the mother would have the right to return to part time work and take extra, unpaid leave by agreement with the employer. The right to part time work would extend until the child is school age.

    In caring for young children, working mums – including casuals – would have the right to reasonable unpaid emergency leave and the right to vary their hours to fit with childcare times.

    In caring for school children, working parents would have the right to buy up to 6 weeks extra leave each year, for example to cover school holidays.

    And for those (usually women) caring for aged or disabled family members, were also seeking the right to 6 weeks of extra unpaid annual leave and the right to vary hours for example to keep doctors appointments: slightly more generous than the 5 days of unpaid leave that currently exists.

    Paid Maternity Leave

    Separate to this case, the ACTU has been at the forefront of the campaign to secure paid maternity leave for all working Australian women.

    Only 38% of Australian workers have access to paid maternity leave – most of them professionals – while the bulk of low-paid workers miss out. The level of paid leave provided in Australia usually falls well short of the 14 weeks recommended by the ILO; most women get between 2 and 6 weeks.

    John Howard dithers hopelessly over this issue, and Tony Abbott and Amanda Vanstone refuse to allow a government-funded scheme as proposed to provide working women with 14 weeks leave paid at the minimum wage level.

    Income security for the first 3 months after birth removes economic pressure for women to return to work and gives them time to recover from the physical impact of childbirth. It also gives mother and child the maximum opportunity to bond and establish breast-feeding.

    Income is no small matter at this crucial time when you consider that women, on average, now contribute 40% of the household income.

    Pru Goward has recommended a universal provision of 14 weeks at minimum rates pro rata payments for part-time employment at a cost of $212 million about half the cost of the existing baby bonus. Such a scheme would bring Australia into line with most other OECD nations and many developing countries.

    In not providing this international human right, Australia and the United States remain on a par with countries such as Eritrea, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Swaziland and PNG.


    Childcare is the other missing piece of the jigsaw and is a major issue for working women and their families. Apart from providing assistance to working parents, good quality childcare and early childhood education is a vital element of early childhood development.

    75% of a childs brain develops during the first five years of their life, and half of the entire intellectual and developmental potential of a child is established by age four.

    Last year 850,000 children used some form of government-funded childcare. However, another 174,500 children missed out on a childcare place of some kind.

    Access to childcare services is particularly tough in regional areas and disadvantaged urban centres where the free market approach clearly isnt working. Government subsidies and co-located services need to be considered.

    Access is one problem. Affordability and quality are others.

    ABS figures for 2002 show that childcare costs for families increased by 17 per cent compared with an average CPI increase of 3.4 per cent. A family with two parents working full time with one child in care faces a net childcare cost of $182 a week.

    A draft policy to be debated at next months ACTU Congress will call on federal and state governments to commit to 15 hours of free childcare a week by 2010, for workers earning less than $100,000 a year. The cost beyond the 15-hour threshold would be capped at 15% of the workers weekly wage.

    The scheme would be based on a standard childcare fee of $50 per day, indexed in line with the cost of living.

    Woeful government funding is also jeopardising childcare quality. The Howard government spends just point-one per cent of GDP on childcare, ranking Australia 26th out of 28 OECD countries. The average is .6% and Denmark tops the table, spending 2.1%.

    The funding hole is being filled by for profit childcare services. How can we be sure that quality of care is not being compromised in the pursuit of profit?

    Stringent and enforceable accountability of childcare services is important. Parents must be assured that quality childcare services will be provided irrespective of whether centres are required to produce a profit for shareholders or not.

    The main factor in the quality of childcare is the quality of staff.
    Well-qualified and well-paid staff are capable of providing high quality childcare and educational opportunities. But extremely poor pay is driving qualified workers out of the sector. Needless to say the bulk of childcare workers also happen to be women.

    The Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into childcare funding found that child care workers are amongst the lowest paid workers in the country given the nature and responsibility of their work.

    In spite of this, Government funding of childrens services has not been directed at rewarding workers with wage increases in recognition of the value of the work performed. Unions are working hard to improve this.


    So there are a handful of challenges confronting women in the modern workplace and some ideas that could ease the transition into the post-Harvester Man era.

    One thing is certain: we cannot stand still and pretend nothing has changed. Nor can we turn back the clock.

    The revolution has already happened in the workplace, now it must also happen in the minds of our employers and our politicians. In the interests of equality and plain commonsense, its time to invest in a whole new framework to take us through the next hundred years.

    The opening up of the Australian economy has increased this countrys wealth dramatically in the last 20 years.

    The ACTU would like to see that wealth distributed more fairly as a priority, we would like to see it invested in replacing the out-moded workplace structures that are still holding back working women from their full potential.

    Sharan Burrow
    ACTU President
    Speech to Women, Management and Employment Relations Conference
    Hotel Intercontinental, Sydney, Friday July 25, 2003