|Issue No 108||24 August 2001|
Who's Holding the Baby?
Alison Peters asks what the recent Australian Catholic University deal really mean for women workers?
Much has been said since details of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Enterprise Agreement became public. There was the usual rant from employer groups about how expensive it would be if all employers had to provide it. The Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott used the agreement to justify the Coalition Government's gutting of the award system. There was doom and gloom about what it would mean for the employment prospects of women of child bearing age. At least some commentators saw the agreement as a move in the right direction and were pleased to see at last some public debate given the virtual silence on the issue over the years.
In light of all this talk what does the ACU deal really mean for women workers? What are the implications for the union movement?
Paid maternity leave is beneficial from a number of viewpoints. It ensures that a woman has some financial security after the birth of her child to ensure she is able to properly look after the health of her new born and herself at this critical time. Paid maternity leave also goes some way to ensuring income equality for women who continue to bear the prime responsibility for caring for babies. As research suggests that women lose approximately $160,000 on average in life time earnings because of the time they are out of the paid workforce looking after their children (a figure which increases with the number of children each woman has) it certainly doesn't cover a woman's lost income but it is a start.
There's a benefit for business with evidence that paid maternity leave is a major factor in women returning to work thus reducing turnover costs. It helps employers attract and keep staff. Finally there is the public policy argument that it is the right thing to do in supporting families and has long term benefits for society. For the economists this argument can be put like this: paid maternity leave is an investment that will guarantee the supply of future workers - factors of production if you like - and even more importantly consumers which keeps the whole demand and supply thing going. I personally prefer the argument that it's the right thing to do.
Whatever the rationale for paid maternity leave there is no doubt that the ACU provisions are outstanding. However, these provisions because they are so exceptional also serve to highlight how badly Australian women workers fare compared to their sisters internationally. Australia, along with the USA and New Zealand are the only developed countries that do not provide some universal system of paid maternity leave in line with the ILO Convention standard. New Zealand are however, considering legislation that will see them join other developed and many developing countries which have adopted schemes that meet ILO provisions for paid maternity entitlements for working women.
One of the most frustrating things for me listening to media reports about the ACU agreement were comments suggesting that the Federal public sector standard of 12 weeks was the norm. Lets be clear about this - in Australia the legal standard for women who have worked with their employer for 12 months is 12 months unpaid leave. When it comes to paid maternity leave just over a third of women get some payment varying in most cases between 1 and 12 weeks. In federal enterprise agreements the most common period of paid maternity leave is a mere 2 weeks and in NSW agreements it is 6 weeks. Both are well short of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) convention standard of a minimum of 14 weeks.
The point remains that in Australia that for every women worker who has access to some paid maternity leave (however paltry that is) two do not.
It is also the case that a move to enterprise bargaining has not delivered significant improvements in recent years. Only 7.5% of federally registered agreements contain provisions for paid maternity leave. In NSW the figure is 3.1%. In 2000 only 6.2% of federal agreements had a provision for paid maternity leave which was a drop from 9.8% in 1998. The figures in NSW average between 4.5% and 5.5% in the last four years. This reflects research that shows other family friendly measures such as carer's leave and part time work also do not feature highly in enterprise agreements. This clearly demonstrates that paid maternity leave (and other family friendly initiatives) is not an issue in enterprise bargaining. It is just not on the agenda. So much for Tony Abbott's view that the Coalition's system of leaving things to individual workplaces delivers better family friendly work practices. It also doesn't say much for unions who either don't put it on the table or allow it to drop during negotiations.
Unions have started to address how we can extend paid maternity leave to the two thirds of working women who currently don't have access to this entitlement as well as lift the standard entitlement to at least that contained in the ILO Convention. The ACTU has made paid maternity leave one of its priority campaigns and individual unions such as the NTEU, CPSU (both involved with the ACU agreement) and the MEU here in NSW working hard on winning paid maternity leave in the workplace or in industrial tribunals.
This is great but more needs to be done (and by more than a handful of unions) and we need to recognise that an industry by industry and workplace by workplace approach will take a long time and may still leave gaps. Looking at the employers' reaction to the ACU agreement unions running such traditional industrial campaigns will also face significant opposition from employers. The union movement must also recognise that many women work in industries or occupations where unions are not strong and where the work is increasingly precarious.
These are not reasons for not continuing to organise and campaign in workplaces to achieve paid maternity leave but we must look more broadly than that. We must campaign politically and with the broader community to ensure that Governments (both state and federal) do their bit to extend paid maternity entitlements to all women workers. As a first step we need to be lobbying the Federal Government to investigate the costs of providing paid maternity leave in line with the ILO Convention and how this might be achieved (levy on employers, social security, taxation or a combination of these etc). This was a recommendation made by Susan Halliday in the "Pregnant and Productive" report and is supported by the current Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward. This research is vital to help us argue our case for a national scheme applying to all women workers. In the lead up to a federal election we should be getting commitments from all the parties and all the candidates that they will support such an investigation. Some might even be willing to support action to ensure Australia meets the terms of the ILO Convention!
The Union movement should be under no illusion that achieving paid maternity leave will solve all of our problems. It is only one facet of a much broader picture that allows women (and men) to balance their work and family responsibilities. Issues such as child care, before and after school care, flexibility and control over working hours, carer's leave, job security etc are equally important to parents or those who care for relatives or friends. Unions must also turn our attention to these - sooner rather than later - if we are to live up to our aim of achieving fair and safe workplaces for all of our members.
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