Interview: The Binds That Tie
Unions: Worth Cycling For
Industrial: The Elephant in the Corner
Legal: A Law Unto Themselves
Politics: Ethically Lonely
History: Women, Unions, Banners and Parades
Women: Relaxed and Comfortable?
International: The Last Social Democrat
Review: The Corpse Bride
Culture: Tony Moore Holds His Own
The Locker Room
A Free Vote
John Bares All
Tom A World Away
The Binds That Tie
Interview with James Gallaway
What sort of condition are Australian families in at the moment, given that we have come through a technological revolution and there has been a large amount of change throughout the last decade of the last century?
I think there is a lot of confusion and disarray amongst Australian families at the moment because we haven't coped terribly well with the technological shifts and the restructuring of business that took place in the mid to late 80s. There has been quite a lot of disruption as well, as families have had to move to two income, dual incomes, or one and a half incomes, anyway, as women go back to the workplace, and certainly men have not adjusted all that well to that shift, and on top of that the trends towards longer working hours and insecure jobs has clearly had a fallout effect in family relationships, marriage relationships - there is a lot research evidence of conflict and stress; clashes between work demands and the demands of family life - and, unfortunately, Australian workplaces have not become all that family friendly in the new sense of the term.
Many of them still think it is just a matter of "women with children" - they are still seen as a bit of a nuisance, and they haven't caught up with the fact that we now have many one-parent families. We have many re-married step-families. We have many families where both partners are working, but they are still below the poverty line, and the fact also that many regions suffer unemployment to a greater extent than others. So it is a very complex time for Australian families, and complicating it further now, will be the new requirements - the new regime of industrial relations.
I was particularly interested in the first part of your impact statement. You provide us with a snapshot of Australian families at the moment, and I was really taken by the fact that lone parents - lone person households are at 1.6 million. That's 25%. Is that figure higher than it has ever been before in history, and is that a result of the huge amount of change that has gone on?
Yes, it is. Before World War II, only about 75% of adult males and females were married, and post-war of course, the return of people from the war and the marriage boom and then the baby boom, saw for the first time close to 100% of Australians getting married and having children. Back then, of course the singles - the bachelor uncles and the spinster aunts, were not necessarily living along in their own household. The big change has been towards individuals living alone in their own flat, their own home. So we have seen a huge increase in the number of households, but not a huge increase in the number of families. Certainly not the traditional nuclear family.
The figures were quite high there for couples with no children, as well.
Yes, and that is the result of two different movements. One is the delay in getting married, so people are getting married later and they are having children later in their thirties. So you will have couples living together before marriage, so they are the couple family, then when they do marry there is still sometimes a delay in having children, so they are still a couple only. That is at the young end.
And of course, at the other end you have got older people whose children have grown up, left the family home and that older couple are healthier and living longer, so we have got a larger number of older couples on the other end of the scale.
With a Family Impact Statement I am sure that you take in to account a large number of inputs to arrive at some of the conclusions that you do, but how accurate and how reliable is such a statement.
Well, it is an estimate based on related research evidence, and you can't accurately say what the impact of this new legislation or any other piece of legislation will be until after the event. Obviously an important part of this exercise is to monitor what happens now, six months down the track, 12 months, two years down the track, so forecasts about increased numbers of jobs, increased productivity, the sort of forecasts I'm making in the Family Impact Statement about increased family stress, complete uncertainty, lack of time for parenting, damage to marital relationships - you can't get an accurate picture of that until after the fact, but basically, just as with an environmental impact statement you can look at what is know about the links between one factor and another and we know from the research that there are very clear links between stress at work and unfriendly working conditions and family conflict, marriage breakdown, poor parenting fallout, not to mention, of course, problems with absenteeism from work, low morale, poorer job satisfaction, turnover, job churn.
There is plenty of evidence already that family factors and work factors are very closely interrelated, so you can project, on the basis of that evidence to say, anything that moves in the direction of increasing uncertainty, reducing wages, extending work hours, being less family friendly, are likely then to increase those trends towards marriage relationship problems, family problems.
You would, I imagine, have to say that people are already experiencing a great deal of anxiety about their jobs.
I was very interested in - you referenced Professor Fiona Stanley's comments about the particular impact on children and today's Courier Mail reported that half of everyone under the age of 25 in Australia has reported using illicit drug, which are an example of the psycho-social problems she refers to. Are there parts of your Family Impact Statement that report specifically on the effect on children?
Yes. There is a section there. That is clearly one of the big concerns. The government has argued that the new IR regime will be more family friendly because of flexibility and choice, but what it ignores is the fact that family friendliness is not just a matter of flexibility, it is a matter of job conditions that impact directly on the family. You can be very flexible, but some families - some workers would love to have a standard nine to five job, rather than all this flexibility. That is the sort of flexibility they would like so that they can be at home when kids get home from school. They can supervise properly. They can interact more with their kids. They can have less interference of the job during their time with the family.
Fiona Stanley and her group in Western Australia plus the huge longitudinal study that is being conducted the Australian Institute of Family Study on a cohort of ten thousand Australian children, documenting some quite severe fallout for children, including death, mental illness, lack of social behavioral development, lack of emotional stability and development, poor performance at school. Much of that is related to the hurried life, the sort of rushed life that their parents are experiencing.
Of course, we have had plenty of research evidence over many decades of the impact of poverty - low family incomes - on children and their educational and social outcomes, and the fear here is that you will get bad effects at both ends. We will see an undermining of salaries/wages at the lower income end and that therefore impacts directly on the money that parents have to put into their children's upbringing and wellbeing, but it will also have the impact of uncertainty, insecurity, conflict at work with bosses and supervisors, the inability to juggle their work and family responsibilities, which we also know badly affects children. When you look at the evidence on children in Australia, because we still have inadequate childcare systems, because schools are not really geared up to work in kilter with working parents ... The funny thing is John Howard years ago said schools are not family friendly, and indeed they are not. It is one thing that I certainly agree with him about. We have to see structural change and a range of different levels to help people to meet both their family and their job responsibilities.
We are not doing that, and this legislation I think undermines a lot of the more positive moves the Howard Government has made over recent years in the direction of encouraging employers to be more responsive to family needs. They have boiled it down to the slogan of flexibility and choice and ignored all of the other evidence that relates to real working conditions. The times at work, better worker control over those factors. It seems to be handing more and more control to employers, who on the evidence, are not overall particularly interested in responding to workers and their family responsibilities.
I was taken by some comments that you made within the report where you were saying that one of your greater concerns was that the transition from existing awards to negotiated awards would have an influence on working hours. And, Tom Morton, in an essay recently in the Griffith Review cites the case of a woman who worked in telesales with Steggles Chickens, and, out of the blue, she received a letter saying that she was to start work at 6.30 a.m. when she previously started at 8 a.m. She went to the Commission and she won and they worked out a compromise where she could start at 7.30 a.m. Now the reason she couldn't start at 6.30 was because she took her children to before school care which started at 7 a.m. You mentioned before John Laws saying would the Australian employers be - I think the wording in the legislation is "reasonable" - or not be unreasonable about the demands for overtime. What is your sense of Australian employers and the possibilities here for parents who have situations where they will have to work and children will have to find their own way to before school care?
Well, I'm not very positive about that. I have worked with a lot of companies that have done some terrific things in becoming more family friendly. A number of the major banks, companies like Alcoa, NRMA - even some law firms now, have realized that if they behave sensibly and are reasonable about these things they get better commitment and performance and productivity from their workers, but overall things have not changed very much because the thrust towards family friendly workplace provisions in Australia was brought to a sudden halt in the late 80s early 90s by all of that restructuring and downsizing - the sort of economic rationalist revolution, and employers basically said to hell with it, we are sacking people and you will work as we require you to work.
I attended a recent forum run by the Diversity Council. That is an Australian government funded group that involves people at every level, from business, from government departments, from consultants who work with companies in this arena, and the overwhelming voice was saying things are not good. That it is looking more and more savage out in Australian workplaces, especially the small to medium size businesses, which really don't get a great deal of help or guidance in these matters and are burdened by over-regulation at every level. It is not just IR type regulation, it is the bureaucracy at work at every level from local government down, and the phrase "savage workplace" was used many times by people, saying they go into companies - they are brought in to consult or they are brought in to advise on things like the Steggles case - that is a very famous case in this area - and the attitudes they confront are quite staggering. The degree of hostility - the huge amount of ignorance of the research data on this. They don't even seem to understand that being reasonably responsive, listening and understanding that family responsibilities are an inevitable part of life, rather than just a nuisance, does reduce absenteeism. It does reduce accidents at work. It does improve retention of the best workers. It does enhance the prospects of attracting the best new recruits. They don't even read the evidence that younger people - the Generation Y group so called - are saying, we don't want to work the way our parents have worked and we want workplaces that are willing to recognize a balance in our lives and if they don't we are not going to work for them. We'll go somewhere else.
Now, unfortunately many employers still believe they only have to respond where the workers have skills that are in short supply. And that is of course what the government has been saying. They have been saying it is a workers market, but that is only true at certain levels, it is not true for unskilled people. It is certainly not true for women who have children who can't just give up a job and go find somewhere else to work if their current boss is unresponsive and recalcitrant, or belligerent, and so it is a sort chimera of a faint hope that things will be any good. And what I think this government has missed in this IR legislation completely is a chance to build in real requirements for all companies to consider the family needs, the family responsibilities of every employee, and to set up some sort of advisory service, some sort of monitoring service to make that feasible.
The efforts they have put in in the last decade or so to the Office of Work and Family - things like the Business Council's Work/Family Award once a year - you see the same companies coming up for the prizes - the good ones - the ones who understand the methodology - they understand the arguments for this sort of procedure - they have got experience now and data showing that it has paid off for them in terms of retention and lower absenteeism and so on. But there is a vast array of employers out there who are still living in the dark ages where they assume every worker is a male. They have all got a wife at home and the wife is looking after the kids. And if they have other family problems - then it is not my problem.
In Tom's essay he references your book The War Over Work and quotes you saying that people face "a daily battle for possession of their bodies and minds". And he suggests that one of the great political achievements of the Howard Government and its supporters has been to render this battle largely invisible. How have they managed that? How is it that we don't know about the good corporate citizens?
It is partly the way the way the media works. The good stories rarely get written up. They much prefer to write up the Steggles case, and it is important that they do because that highlights just how barbaric some bosses can be. But it is also because the whole thrust of values in Australian society has been towards individualism. Towards saying, you make the choices and you live with them. And we have bought that unfortunately. We have not been taught - the wider public has not been taught - that choices are always made within certain constraints. If you haven't been to the right school; if you haven't gained the right certificate and got the right skills, then what does choice mean? Your choice is very limited. If you are a woman you choices are always limited because of the longstanding gender bias of not just western society, but every society. And to run that mantra of choice; individual responsibility; you make the decisions you live with them, is really a deception. In the book I talk about it as the triumph of psychology over sociology, which I think is an appalling result. And what I mean is, that psychology always looks inside the person's head, it never looks outside the person to the wider society.
To the interpersonal I suppose?
Yes, the interpersonal thing and the contextual thing. People live in a context. If you are living in a small Mallee town, back of Burke or something, what choices do you have? And the consequences - or what appear to be consequences of your individual action or choice - or what your Mum and Dad have decided to do for you, are not really the consequences of that, they are the consequences of your geographic location, the quality of schools that exist in that region, the job opportunities that exist or don't exist, and the changing nature of the wider economy. Society sets the limits for choice. If you happen to be one of the less fortunate ones - either a woman or a man of course, if you are an old person you are heavily discriminated against, but at the same time the government is saying you have got to work until you drop. So there are all sorts of contradictions, but the underlying problem is that people don't understand how social factors affect and control what appear to be private choices.
You were saying before that we are in an age of individualism. Work has always had an almost religious connotation to it. It keeps you away from bad influences. Certainly technological change has influenced the position of work in our society, it has probably made people want to work a bit harder because they are frightened of losing their jobs to technology and so on. Are we at a point where the pendulum is swinging to the point where our communities and our families just can't take it any longer?
I think that there is evidence of that sort of breakdown, and I point to the evidence of the United States. If we want to predict where Australia is heading, you only have to look at the US which has very low minimum wages, has no security in the workforce, has no mandated maternity or parental leave benefits, relies only on company goodwill. The few good companies again to be responsive to problems that come out of your family circumstances.
Look at the divorce rate; look at the marriage breakdown rate; the family breakdown rate; the level of delinquency; 2 million people in jails; millions of people underemployed, if not unemployed - and that is where we are headed with this sort of regime. To me that is not a decent society. That is not a good civil society and it reflects a failure of government to act on behalf of the quality of life that its citizens can lead. And there of course you have got the prime example of people being taught and believing that if you don't succeed it is your own fault. You've only got yourself to blame. You can pull yourself up by your boot straps, and I never thought that we would see that sort of philosophy in Australian society.
Margaret Thatcher's no such thing as society.
And of course there is such a thing as society, and beyond that there is such a thing as an economy and there is such a thing as a geographic location and the quality of the local school. And all of those things hamper or enhance your life chances.
We have been sold a pup. We have been sold the notion that it is up to us and if we work hard enough and if we have the right goody-goody two-shoes attitude then we can all succeed.
Most people just want to live a reasonable life. They are not necessarily looking for vast wealth. They just want a decent life and that involves a life that gives them time with their family, their friends, their community. If you can't take your kids to the footy or if you can't go watch your kids play a game of cricket, or play a game of cricket with them on Saturday or Sunday, then what is the point.
Your comment before of reaching breaking point, I think is quite apt because we will see more families breaking down and we will see more people saying it is too much - you know, I've had enough, this is not the way of life that we should be leading here.
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