Balancing work and family life is essential for the wellbeing of our whole community and yet it is a balancing act that is becoming increasingly difficult. Australian families have changed and work needs to change too.
The need for support for workers with caring responsibilities has increased as more mothers enter the workforce, and more elderly and people with chronic illness and disabilities are being cared for at home.
Unions believe that workplaces, through practical measures by employers and policies by government, must provide employees with flexible work practices which allow them to balance work and family life.
The changing workplace
Over recent decades, the typical household has changed to one where both parents work. Increases in dual income and sole parent families means that most children live in households where all the adults work.
An ageing population means that many of us will be carers or rely on being cared for throughout our lives.
There are 5.5 million unpaid carers in Australia who contribute an estimated $650 billion per annum (in 2010) of care to our community.
The 2011 ACTU Working Australian’s Census surveyed 40 000 employees and found balancing work and family was the second biggest issue, behind a wage rise, for both men and women.
Helping parents and carers continue to do this valuable work whilst staying in quality, secure employment is a key element to strengthening the Australian economy overall.
Employers benefit from providing family friendly arrangements at work because they keep skilled and experienced workers who are more productive.
In Australia in 2009, 4.1 million employees had responsibilities for unpaid caring work.
When employed, female parents are more likely to work part-time than male parents: 66 per cent of employed females with children aged under six years worked part-time compared to seven per cent of employed males with children of this age.
35 per cent of mothers of children under 12 are employed casually, and have no paid sick leave or carer’s leave.
Only around one in five female primary carers of people with disability, illness or frailty are able to work full time.
The ACTU Working Australians Census also found carers felt that their workplace wasn’t always supportive, with over two in five (44.4 per cent) saying they did not feel comfortable taking time out to meet their caring responsibilities.
Australia ranks low compared to other OECD countries when it comes to offering family friendly workplaces for carers. The most common solution for carers is to find casual or part-time work and Australia remains in the lowest third of OECD countries in respect of workforce participation of mothers. The Inquiry into Insecure Work showed that many carers who were denied family friendly working arrangements were forced in to low paid, insecure jobs.
In 2009, the Fair Work Act introduced a National Employment Standard for the first time allowing parents and carers to ask for a change in working arrangements to care for young children under school age or children under 18 with a disability. This was a major advance for work and family balance.
The current law providing employees with a Right to Request Family Friendly work arrangements is too limited.
The National Employment Standards allow eligible employees the right to request family friendly work arrangements to assist their caring responsibilities but an employer can refuse a request on reasonable business grounds.
The Federal Government has recently announced it will extend the right to carers of school-aged children, elderly relatives, persons with disabilities and victims of domestic violence. It will also apply to the domestic violence victims themselves and to workers over 55 years of age.
The ACTU has been lobbying for this extension for some time and welcomes the announcement.
However, we are disappointed the government has not addressed the fact that once a request is refused, the law does not provide an avenue for an appeal against an unreasonable refusal.
Unions have long campaigned for working families to balance their care responsibilities. We’ve helped deliver the 8 hour working day, weekends, four weeks of paid annual leave, sick leave, family/carers’ leave and paid parental leave.
The right to request family friendly arrangements are an important part of supporting modern Australian workforce.
Unions will campaign to ensure the right to request family friendly arrangements is enforceable, including:
- All employees with caring responsibilities, older workers and workers experiencing domestic violence to have the right to request a change in work arrangements;
- An obligation on employers to genuinely consider the request (which can be refused on reasonable business grounds); and
- The right for an employee to appeal an unreasonable refusal of their request.
Overall, the majority of requests are approved but in cases where they are unreasonably refused , workers have nowhere else to go.
A number of other OECD countries place a greater duty on employers to accommodate a request for family friendly working arrangements, including the Netherlands, the UK and Germany.
Clearly a culture shift amongst employers is occurring as many reasonable requests can be accommodated. However short-sighted workplaces continue to refuse to restructure and unreasonably refuse requests for flexibility from carers.
Unions are seeking a commitment from the Government that where requests are not seriously considered, or are unreasonably refused, an avenue to appeal be included in the updating of the Fair Work Act.