In a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra today, ACTU President Sharan Burrow argues access to paid maternity leave and decent part time jobs are a dual necessity if Australians are to balance their work and family life.

Family Friendly Workplace – The 21st Century Challenge

Balancing Work and Family – The Issue for The Times: The public policy challenge for all political parties is to support a revolution that promotes a world of work where 21st century workplaces are family friendly. Workplaces designed for the 1900s – products of industrial revolution – need to be relegated to the museum of industrial history.

For more than 100 years our workplaces and work patterns have been structured around the role of men as the sole breadwinner, with women bearing the load of domestic labour. This structure emerged from the social realities of more than a century ago, but despite the views of the more conservative men in the Howard Government’s cabinet, the world of work designed by men for men of another era is no longer appropriate or sustainable.

In a recent ACTU survey of 8000 workers, 87% of female respondents identified family friendly provisions as THE key priority in the workplace.

This is an astonishingly high rating in a survey that included more than 4000 working women. This means a shift in the culture of workplaces – workplaces where people can be explicit about their caring responsibilities, where there is acceptance of short term leave requirements for special events or emergency family needs, where family is not left at the office or factory door, but instead expressly recognised as a legitimate demand on workers’ time. Such a shift in culture must be built upon the acceptance of family friendly entitlements.

  • paid maternity leave, and accompanying provisions;
  • extended unpaid parental leave, to allow choice in the care of infants;
  • reasonable hours
  • the right to return to part time work following parental leave;
  • the right to seek more flexible working hours;
  • the capacity to buy extra leave for a slightly reduced annualised salary,
  • emergency leave.
  • All these provisions and more operate now in economies similar to ours, and indeed in the handful of companies in Australia who have taken a leadership role, recognised the need for change and are reaping the benefits of increased productivity from reduction in worker stress and/or savings in lower staff turnover rates.

    Yet public policy lags behind and Australia’s working men and women are increasingly frustrated with the seemingly deliberate obstinacy of a government unwilling to address these issues.

    I am delighted to share this dialogue with Linda Duxbury whose work is internationally recognised in this area of work/life balance. The Canadian experience serves to illuminate common areas of social pressure which, in both nations, is driving an implosion of family and community health due to the increasing pressures of work and the lack of appropriate scaffolding from modern and relevant public policy.

    Things have changed Prime Minister: 20 years ago, single breadwinner families accounted for over half of couple families with children – today they only account for one third.

    Twenty years ago, dual breadwinner families with both adults working full time were pretty rare – only 17% – while today more than a quarter of families with children have both couples working over 35 hours per week. Add to these families where one adult works part time and we know that 62% of couple families with dependants have both parents in the workforce. Mothers are returning to work after child bearing in greater numbers and with younger children; in 1976 only a quarter of mothers returned to work before their youngest child turned 2, today over half of mothers of babies and toddlers are in paid work.

    Fifteen percent of families are sole parent families, headed in the main by women (86%). Over half a million of these families have dependants, and in 2000 we saw for the first time that more than 50% of these parents were in the labour force. By the time the child is at secondary school, 70% of sole parents are at work.

    What does the data mean? It means that today, unlike the vast part of this century, for many families there is no-one to take on the roles that have been performed by a full time home worker.

    Yet the tasks of the home worker still need to be done – young children cared for, older children provided with activities out of school hours and during the holidays in a safe environment, medical emergencies dealt with, older parents assisted with house duties along with the whole gamut of domestic responsibilities for catering and cleaning. The age of the breadwinner is all but dead and gone. Families have changed, and work has to change too. This is the challenge of the 21st century workplace.

    John Howard’s response is sadly influenced by what he wishes the picture to look like: Last week the Prime Minister told Laurie Oaks that more than 50% of families had at least one parent at home full time or only part time in the workforce.

    This was a very deceptive use of the data – he was trying to paint a picture of an era he is romantic about, when maternal labour market participation was marginal. Women who choose to manage work and family through part-time participation in the workforce are every bit as entitled to be valued for their economic and social contribution as full-time workers. In truth every working woman has a right to be angry with him for he effectively belittled the paid employment efforts of the 46% of working women who work part time.

    John Howard also ignored the fact that seven out of 10 women of key child-bearing years are in the workforce at the time of their first baby. Our old M-shaped curve of female labour market participation has been discarded and women’s participation now mirrors men’s. The message from younger women (and men) looking ahead is that their 30s and 40s look like a time of too much work and too much family. In formulating policy we need to be cognisant of the taxation and employment impediments for working Australians either starting a family or choosing to have additional children.

    The Government could do so much yet the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to understand that his own policies are working against the changes demanded to allow parents genuine choices. He claims to have improved choice for families – in fact his family tax payments (Family Tax Benefit Part B) is fashioned on the single income family and even in that context assists more high income sole breadwinner families than it does single and low income dual parent families.

    It is one of the biggest impediments to women returning to work after the birth of their child – women have to forego $3000 when they go back to part time employment irrespective of their income. Likewise, his baby bonus scheme at around $500m – more than twice the cost of universal paid maternity leave, 14 weeks at minimum rates – benefits women only if they can afford and choose to stay at home and then pays out far more to higher income earners than to those at the lower end of the income scale.

    Howard says he has recognised that for many mothers with young children part time work is attractive, yet he has done nothing to facilitate quality part time work; his employment laws removed protections for part time workers, and his tax laws penalise a second parent engaged in part time work.

    Part time work is an option for many mothers as they make the transition back to work after their maternity leave – be it short or until their child is older – but it must follow from proper income support for mothers and their newborn babies. For the Prime Minister to suggest that women should be grateful for his hint that instead of introducing the fundamental dignity of paid maternity leave he might do something to encourage the provision of part time work, is to demonstrate just how much he is in collusion with or controlled by conservative Ministers like Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin.

    Working women want Ministers such as Abbott and Minchin to explain what they pay the bills with while on maternity leave and why it is that almost every other nation in the world, rich and poor alike provides women the respect of recognising their contribution to both the economy and the society by guaranteeing paid maternity leave.

    No responsible member of parliament can seek to deny women those valuable first three months of a child’s life or the new baby the single focus of a mother’s attention to nurturing in those valuable first days. Yet because men continue to dominate public policy decisions and Australia has failed to introduce paid maternity leave, all too many women are forced back to work long before 14 weeks is up.

    In the context of this discussion we have two messages for the Prime Minister: one, ignore Tony Abbott who does not seem to understand that it is the 21st century and that women work; and, two, don’t even think about merely doubling the maternity allowance or providing social security rates – women pay taxes and nothing under minimum rates ($431) for the international standard of 14 weeks will suffice. This is a very reasonable proposition given Britain has just introduced 26 weeks.

    In simple and appropriate terms – paid maternity leave is overdue for Australian women.

    Paid maternity leave is the foundation stone upon which we can build family friendly workplaces. Despite the enormity of the cultural shift required, it is good to be able to note that a small but increasing number of companies are beginning to explore their capacity to be more flexible.

    Rather than resisting change, these companies and institutions have taken up the challenge and found it won’t necessarily hurt their bottom line and might even enhance it.

    Auto-Liv, a Swedish car component company operating in Australia, stands out but others include Westpac, the Australian Catholic University, Hollywood Private Hospital, Goss Cosmetics, Pacific Brands, Tabcorp, the Body Shop and many others who are shaping up as real role models.

    By contrast, some are still in the dark ages and the dinosaur medal for the month must go to Theiss Recycling. How outrageous is it that in 2003 a company can sack a woman who is 7 months pregnant with the claim that it would be breaching health and safety standards to keep her on.

    So, heavily pregnant, Oong Nguyen, 23, employed as a casual, after more than 2 years of loyal service on the night shift, was dismissed without any financial compensation and no offer of future work. This is at odds with law, which provides for at least twelve months of unpaid maternity leave.

    So how can they do this: Thiess, a multi-million dollar company, claimed that it hadn’t sacked her at all, because she wasn’t an employee. The company argued that the woman was in fact a “contractor”, supplied by a labour hire firm and thus Thiess had no obligations or responsibilities in the matter.

    The labour hire firm argued it hadn’t sacked her either, because technically she was still on their books.

    This young mother-to-be was exploited from every angle. The bad news is that in modern Australia such extreme tales of discrimination are not uncommon in our workplaces.

    The good news is that Oong Nguyen was smart enough to take her case to the Industrial Relations Commission and won a significant victory.

    The Commission compensated her and also issued a stern message to employers that they have a responsibility to fairly accommodate employees in matters of work and family.

    That message heard more and more from the industrial court signifies that Australian workplaces are heading into an era of major transformation. Tony Abbott could convert to a regular new-age guy, head Simon Crean’s call for a ‘family friendly test’ to complement the ‘no disadvantage test’, amend the Workplace Relations Act accordingly and lead the trend! I suggest you don’t hold your breath.

    Unions are at the forefront of pushing for these changes. In a bid to re-shape workplace attitudes and establish a core set of rights, this year the ACTU will launch a Work and Family Test Case in the Industrial Relations Commission.

    Further to our quest for reasonable hours we’re seeking a package of measures to modernise the choices available to working families. What we’re proposing should be supported by business given that the measures are already in place in some Australian and overseas companies. Indeed, if he is serious about part time work, we can now expect support from the Prime Minister.

    The changes in the structure of work in the past three decades have been to the disadvantage of all workers, but particularly women. During the 1990’s 87% of the net jobs created paid less than $26.000pa, and more than half of those paid less than $16,000. Women are over-represented in these jobs.

    Our claim is a policy response, which is based on sound evidence, and underpinned by a strong theoretical base which identifies the different needs of children, dependants, and workers at different stages of their life course.

    In relation to work and family, the ACTU has identified 4 key phases in the lives of working families. The first is the birth of the child, followed by care in the early years. Next is the transition back to work, usually for the mother, and finally the challenge of managing work and family.

    All of these require a range of flexible working and leave arrangements if we’re to address some of the disadvantages women are facing.

    Work & Family Pathway

    The Birth Of A Child

    Pre Birth

  • Ante –natal leave
  • Leave for fertility treatment
  • At Birth

  • Paid maternity leave
  • Paid Paternity/carers (eg grandparents) leave ( leave to care for siblings
    around the time of the birth)
  • Supporting Choice In The Care Of Young Children

    Parental care for young children

    Industrial realm

  • Extended parental leave/childcare leave with job’s held open for
    longer period
  • Policy realm

    Appropriate family support payments

    Parental employment, and childcare

    Policy realm

  • Quality, affordable child care
  • Staffed by qualified workers who are properly paid
  • Quality indicator – low labour turnover (currently running at
  • Supporting The Transition Back To Work

  • Right to return part time, not at employers discretion (note de facto right
    emerging via anti-discrimination laws)
  • Quality part time work: regular hours, disincentives to casual employment
    (conversion/increased loadings)
  • Managing Work And Family

    Employee involvement in setting hours

    Reasonable hours test case, ongoing employee choice rostering and/or right to request change in hours

    Policies which provide leave from work

    Managing emergencies

  • Adjust safety net to improve availability of leave- extend the purposes,
    number of days inadequate
  • assumption of couple family need rebutting
  • Look at right to unlimited unpaid leave for emergencies
  • Catering for planned absences

    Options for consideration:

  • UK 13 weeks unpaid over 5 years
  • Families flexibility over whether they take unpaid leave or average payment
    over the year – (48/52’s) or
  • amalgamating paid leave for whatever purpose, and allowing choice over how
    and when it is taken.
  • Policies to support families stay at work

    Managing emergencies

  • Options for child care for sick children (young and older children)
  • Respite care
  • Catering for known gaps in institutional care

  • School holiday programs and vacation care
  • Aged care options
  • Childcare is the issue set to explode in working Australia.

    For women who choose to or are forced to return to work for economic reasons, access to decent, affordable childcare is a priority.

    This is not properly acknowledged with adequate funding of places or wages for childcare workers. Childcare is increasingly unfordable at around $250 per child per week or $50 per day.

    Even where the childcare benefit is paid at the maximum rate to families earning under $31,000, the cost to parents is over $120 per week, per child. Let’s make that very clear – a low income family with one child in full time care spends $6,250 per annum or more than 20% of their before-tax income on child care after government assistance. Out of a low wage, this means the majority of women with young children are working for very little take-home pay.

    Three pillars of a good childcare system are quality, affordability and accessibility. This government fails on all three counts. Poor wages and lack of workforce planning mean that staff turnover is very high, around 30% a year. Long day care centres are reporting difficulty in attracting and retaining staff. Staff turnover has a direct impact on quality, as staff and children do not develop relationships, and individual needs are not adequately catered for.

    Finally, it is estimated that 20,000 children missed out on a place in long day care or family day care last year, and even more critically 30,000 school-aged children could not be accommodated in outside school hours programs.

    The ACTU believes increased childcare subsidies are required to provide quality services that are affordable for families and staff who are properly qualified and properly paid.

    Childcare unions are working with the ACTU to develop work value and pay equity claims on behalf of childcare workers. New classifications incorporating a genuine career structure will need to be funded to avoid costs being passed onto parents.

    Control Over Working Hours

    Underlying all this is a fundamental lack of control over working hours. Eighteen months ago the ACTU commissioned research into the working lives of fifty families.

    Among the women we interviewed, there was a sense that achieving a sustainable, even enjoyable, balance between work and family was unrealistic. There was a serious personal cost for those locked into long working hours and a serious professional compromise for those who opted to drop back to part-time, casual work.

    The example of Wanda, a postal manager and mother describes her life as a daily, double shift. She says:

    “ I’ve had fairly heavy health problems in the last two years, and I think it’s because, if you take a typical day for me, I’m getting up at 5.30, getting lunches ready, getting the kids ready. I do all that before I get to work. I’ve got 20 staff here, I’m looking after them all day and then I pick up the kids around 6.30 and then it starts again. Got to get the tea ready, empty the lunch boxes, sit down with them with their homework. I don’t actually sit down to relax until 9.

    If you can get a happy balance between work and personal life you’re pretty lucky. I think it just doesn’t happen in the real world. Mine’s just a chaotic life and probably the worst thing you can do is learn to live with it.”

    Long hours are regarded as an unchangeable fact of life for many workers including flight attendants, postal managers, public servants, teachers, strappers, paramedics, doctors and journalists.

    Australia has the second longest working hours in the OECD, with the latest figures from the Bureau of Statistics showing that working hours have increased by two hours in the last year alone. On average we’re working more than 42 hours a week. A quarter of the workforce is chalking up more than 50 hours. These hours would be illegal in Europe.

    The greater the proportion of long-hour jobs in any labour market, the more female carers are forced onto what’s called “the mummy track”, which further entrenches disadvantages for women in the workplace.

    “The mummy track” steers women into jobs that are regarded as second class: lower status and lower paid. Dropping back to part-time work is perceived as a demotion of sorts, a “downward” choice.

    Sonya, a senior public servant, described her feeling of being compartmentalised for having cut back her hours, and the need to go back to working long hours to get her career back on track.

    She says: “Having gone part-time its now like I’m in a certain compartment. There is certainly a change towards me, a perception that I’m focused on my family and not my career. I’m aware that if I wanted to get my career back on track, I’d have to go full time again. There’s absolutely no way around that.”

    Policy responses need to integrate industrial relations, family, population and labour force policies. As a community we all need to take greater responsibility in recognising and providing for the needs of children.

    In every worker survey the most desired change is control over working hours. That is why our case will also claim the right to request a change in working hours, or the place of work, to accommodate the needs of dependants. The right will be subject to the operational needs of the employer, but will place an obligation on the employer to, where practical, accommodate changes to the working day or working week to accommodate family responsibilities.

    Control over working hours is often identified as a high priority by working mothers.

    There are two policy options worth examining. The first is giving workers a choice in rostering, which is being considered in two Australian states. The other is a right to request a change in working hours to care for a child. This is being adopted next year in Britain and will also be sought in the ACTU Test Case.

    The Role Of Government

    Workplace change should be supported and supplemented by a coherent system of taxation and government transfers. The Commonwealth spends over $16 billion in family support payments. The range of payments is confusing and a number of the payments actively discourage families from making certain choices. Some, such as the baby bonus scheme, are inequitable and regressive. Others such as Family Tax Part B discourage female labour force participation. There needs to be a wide-ranging review of these payments to ensure consistency between work and family policies and support for the choice families make. But taxation and transfers are not a substitute for good employment practices, and, despite the business case for recruiting and retaining qualified staff, employers cannot be relied upon to implement these practices. As evidence shows, when the market is relied upon it is women with lower educational attainment and job status who miss out on the benefits.


    In conclusion, let me repeat that policy responses need to integrate industrial relations, family policy, and population policy and labour force arrangements.

    Managing work and family in twenty-first century Australia requires the development of a new framework of rights and obligations. Unions have identified workplace changes that are flexible, respect the choices that families make and recognise that parental participation in the workforce varies depending on the family composition and the age of children.

    The ACTU and unions are committed to industrial and political campaigns to ensure genuine workplace policy reform.

    Twenty-first century workplaces must look vastly different to their 20th century predecessors. Family friendly workplaces are about health families, sustainable communities and productive enterprises. A winning formula all round.

    Sharan Burrow

    ACTU President