Last week, amid media fanfare, the Productivity Commission finished its first round of consultations into paid maternity, paternity and parental leave and retired to consider its findings.
This has been an unusual inquiry for the Commission, attracting unprecedented media attention and a very vocal list of contributors that reads like a "Who’s Who" of prominent voices in business, the labour movement and the community sector. Giving evidence in Sydney in one day were diverse voices including representatives from HREOC, the Australian Industry Group, UnionsNSW and the LHMU, the Diversity Council of Australia, and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja.
As you might imagine, different groups had very different takes on the issue at hand, ranging from enthusiastic proposals of six months’ full income replacement leave funded jointly by Government and business, to the AIG’s flat out condemnation of the idea that business should be forced to bear the costs of maternity leave payments. There were a lot of well known personalities in the room, with venerable track records on the issue and agendas that spanned several decades of reform work. Outside, there were media conferences and interviews, choruses of women talking for the cameras.
It was a good story, but the bigger story is this: in a time when the double income household is the norm, when women’s presence in most parts of the labour market has been normalised, and when countries around the world have implemented paid leave, why doesn’t Australia already have a system of paid maternity leave?
The answer comes down to the lack of political will behind the issue over the preceding 30 years, and particularly over the past decade.
The dismantling of fledgling women’s policy bodies during the Coalition’s reign is well documented in Anne Summers’s book, The End of Equality. In 2002, the Coalition ignored the recommendations of its sex discrimination commissioner and implemented the baby bonus scheme, a system of payments which – while very welcome to the families of newborn children – is a substantial step away from the labour market reform and guaranteed return to work that paid maternity leave would provide. It is also less generous than most of the proposals put to the Productivity Commission, which cite the World Health Organization’s recommendation that babies and mothers must spend at least 14 weeks together following birth, to enable rest, breastfeeding and bonding.
The evidence given to the Commission by Sariah Giblin, a service worker who is the mother of a seriously ill infant, was a heart wrenching example of why the lack of paid leave is so important. Sariah’s baby Wiremu was born very premature, and at the time of her evidence was still in hospital. Sariah was forced by financial necessity to return to work seven weeks after giving birth, expressing milk after-hours at the hospital and in the crew room at work. As she told her story she began to cry, and many of those listening began to cry with her.
In the past few years, there has been a great deal of media commentary on the rise of the older first-time mother – the woman in her mid-to-late 30s or early 40s who, sated by stellar career achievement and burgeoning with financial stability, is settling down to slip out several IVF-assisted babies, each with designer booties and their own private hedge fund.
However you look at it, this image could not be further from the truth. The median gross income of an Australian woman worker is less than $32,000, reflective of the fact that many women work part-time and in jobs that pay very low wages – in retail, hospitality, childcare and other service sector industries. Many more women are out of the labour force entirely, most often undertaking unpaid caring duties. The average age of a first time mother is 29 – very high by world standards.
The biggest beneficiaries of a universal paid maternity leave scheme would be low-paid women in the private sector. Despite a legal entitlement to 52 weeks unpaid parental leave, many women are ineligible for even unpaid maternity leave. Around one third of all women employees are casual and – here’s the kicker – unless you can prove an ongoing casual pattern of work over 12 months, you are not entitled to take unpaid leave around the birth of your child.
In most cases, if an employer has acted wrongly, they must be taken to task through the court system, which is well outside the means of the average casual worker. In practice, casuals have no entitlement to unpaid leave. The same is true for women who are permanent employees, but who have served less than 12 months with their employer – in 2006, this was 38 per cent of women aged 25-34. All in all, this is a lot of women who give up any kind of job security should they have a child.
The Productivity Commission’s mandate is to examine a variety of models for maternity, paternity and parental leave, and to present findings to the Government. Its broader mandate is to give advice on issues that will affect productivity.
It seems clear that, rather than the very strong equity argument for why this leave should be implemented, the Rudd Government has sought to have it justified in pure economic terms.
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