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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
14/05/2010
Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010; Exposure draft of legislation implementing the government's announced paid parental leave scheme

CHAIR (Senator Moore) —I open this hearing on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010, and we have two things in front of us: the exposure draft of the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 as introduced into the parliament on Wednesday, 12 May. We will be providing one report that will cover both the exposure draft and the bill. What we are going to do, and it is a bit unusual, is that although we have some witnesses who are on their way we will start and see how we go. This session is due to finish at 10 o’clock and we are really tight today, so I want to give everyone as much chance as possible to share their views.

We have representatives from the Australian Council of Trade Unions and Unions New South Wales. You have information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence. We have submissions both from the ACTU and from Unions New South Wales—thank you very much. I will invite both organisations to make an opening statement and then we will go into questions. Because of the delay with the other two witnesses, they may come in and join us. Are you ready to start with a statement from the ACTU?

Ms Tkalcevic —The ACTU welcomes this bill. We would like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate all the parties who have been responsible for getting it this far. This is a long-awaited bill. Many women in the union movement older than I am have been campaigning for paid parental leave for a very long time. We are very pleased to see that it is almost a reality. The ACTU first achieved unpaid parental leave in the late seventies, so for a very long time we have been chipping away at improvements—for example, rights for adoptive mothers, rights for fathers in terms of parental leave, the right to request an extension of the length of parental leave and so forth. We very much look forward to seeing the Paid Parental Leave scheme up and running in 2011.

This bill will significantly improve the workforce participation of working women. We see that as one of the key tenets of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Currently, two-thirds of women—mostly low-paid women—have no paid leave at all to give birth and look after a newborn baby. Fewer than half of Australian babies are breastfed in the first six months of their life, mostly because of the early return of their mothers to work. A significant number of mothers must return to work early because they cannot afford not to do so. The SDA in their submission provided some statistics based on research that they have conducted within their union membership, and 10 per cent of their union members are forced to return to work within six weeks of the birth of their baby because they cannot afford not to. Most women in the retail sector do not receive any paid parental leave.

Australia is in the bottom third of OECD countries with respect to the capacity of working mothers to participate in the workforce. Women still earn 17.4 per cent less than men and have almost half the retirement savings of men. In the view of the ACTU, this state of affairs cannot continue. We welcome the bill as a very positive first start to addressing the reality of the situation for many women. We have got a witness here, Sariah, who will tell you her story to support what we are saying. The reality for women at the moment is that it is incredibly hard and stressful. If you work in a sector where there is no paid parental leave, the experience of being a working mother can be stressful and unhappy, which is not the way we want that experience to be. Sariah will hopefully be reinforcing the message of what we need to do now to stop these sorts of things from happening.

Ilana Crawford has a very similar story. She had to return to work when her baby was only three months old. Her husband was retrenched last year during the global financial crisis, so she had to then work full time. She ended up going off on stress leave 12 months later. She just could not handle it. Her baby was unwell. Her testimony is that, had she been entitled to paid parental leave, it would have made the situation so much more bearable.

The ACTU acknowledges that there are concerns about whether the bill represents a good enough model. We have never said that it is perfect. There are aspects of the Paid Parental Leave scheme that we have been very clearly on the record as saying that we think require improvements—for example, there should be paid paternity leave so that fathers can support the family and we can make a cultural shift towards equitable sharing of the caring role; there should be the provision of superannuation on paid parental leave payments; and we should be edging towards a longer quantum, 26 weeks, at full income replacement. They are our goals.

We do believe that the process that has been undertaken to get to where we are has been robust and disciplined and that we are in a situation where we have a bill in front of us that represents a very good step towards where we want to be. It will make a real difference to the lives of many families and, in particular, working mothers. We believe it is a bill we can build on over time to get where we need to go. We do not wish to retravel the aspects of the model or the scheme; we have done that through the Productivity Commission process; we have done that through the consultation process with the government. What we would like to do is to focus on making this bill stronger and better. In our submission we have picked a number of technical areas that we think need to be dealt with.

I could perhaps give a very brief overview of those issues that we have picked up. We note that the stand-alone legislation means that there will be a number of areas people need to go to in order to find out about their rights and obligations for paid parental leave. So we would like to see a better linking in the Paid Parental Leave Bill to those other areas—for example, the Fair Work Act, which has all the unpaid parental leave entitlements and related entitlements—so that someone can at least know that there is something else somewhere else that they need to be aware of.

We note that there are no objects of the act and we think that this would be something that the bill would benefit from—something that sets out the principles of the scheme. In particular, we would like to see an object that makes it very clear that the provisions by the government, and the provisions of this bill, are not intended to replace those that are currently provided by employers. We would like to see it made very clear that this is intended to supplement existing employer entitlements rather than replace them in the same way that the baby bonus supplements existing employer entitlements currently.

We seek a number of improvements to the eligibility criteria—in particular, the permissible break of service, which is currently at eight weeks. We think that is a very good initiative. However, we have some evidence from some unions in particular sectors where significant numbers of women are casual or contract workers—for example, the tertiary sector, the education sector and some of the seasonal workforces like fruit picking and shearing and so on, where they are not engaged for periods of 12 to 16 weeks. We would like the committee to consider some sort of provision for those women who work in those industries to have an extension to cover those periods. For example, the tertiary sector has many people who have worked for 20 years or so under those circumstances who would nevertheless not meet the work test.

We note that the National Employment Standards have very different criteria for eligibility that are much more restricted. We would like to see the National Employment Standards eligibility criteria match those of this bill. As an alternative, at the very least, we would like to see those women who are entitled to paid leave because of the more generous eligibility criteria—but not entitled to unpaid leave because they have not been with the same employer for 12 months, which is what is in the National Employment Standards—have a right to return to a job at the end of their paid leave. There will be a portion of women who will be entitled to 18 weeks paid leave but will not be entitled to the corresponding unpaid leave from their employer. They will have no job to go back to, which is contrary to the objectives of the scheme. In the event that the committee decides that the NES should not be amended, we would at least then say make some provision to ensure that those women who are entitled to paid leave are entitled to a job when they come back from unpaid leave. We have made our position clear in relation to the accrual of rights and entitlements for those women on paid leave. The bill makes no such provision.

We stress how important it is for women, who are already taking a considerable amount of unpaid leave to complement the 18 weeks paid parental leave, when they return to work to get 10 days personal/carers leave. As a mother of twins, I can tell you that does not stretch very far when you are back at work and your children are in child care and they are sick every week or so because that is where they pick up all of their immunity. The 10 days goes completely to somehow try to juggle their illnesses and look after them. There is no room for you to be sick. Then you are suddenly hit with 12 weeks of school holidays and you only get four weeks of annual leave. To not be able to accrue a little bit of extra leave when you are, in fact, on paid parental leave makes it more difficult and we would like to see that there is some consideration for that accrual of entitlements during that period.

We note that there is no provision for transmission of paid parental leave from one employer to another where there is a new employer and we have some concerns about that and it does come across in some other areas within the bill as well. The ACTU is involved with a number of unions in the bargaining around paid parental leave at the moment. There are a considerable number of unions that are sitting down and working out with their employers the best way to model the employer paid parental scheme around this new scheme that is going to be coming in.

Our bargaining claim is for 26 weeks full income replacement including super and two weeks paid paternity leave. We are achieving that in a significant number of workplaces on the basis that the amount provided to the employer from the government is absorbed in that. The melding of the government instalments with the industrial obligations of the employer is where this is heading. It is better for the employers. It is easier. The employees like it because they get 26 weeks on normal wages plus super. There are no two accounts, there are no different payments—it is very clear and simple—but when there is a transmission of business situation the employer is not necessarily distinguishing between where that money is coming from. That is something that will need to be considered in this bill. I think it needs to be considered in a range of other areas as well where it is not necessarily in reality the situation that the employer and the government amounts of money towards a paid parental leave entitlement that the employee ultimately receives are so easily distinguished.

We praise the bill on the compliance mechanisms. We are pleased to see that they are strong and robust. We are conscious that there are a lot of obligations on employees in terms of making the application. It is pretty much up to the employee to make the application and to be aware of their rights and entitlements and we are conscious of the fact that this will be up and running, people will be able to make a claim, within a matter of months now. We would like to stress the importance of getting the information out to employees so that they know what to do and how to go about it. We have looked at the Fair Work Act and the obligation on employers to distribute the fair work information statement and we consider that that would be an appropriate model to disseminate information about the Paid Parental Leave scheme too.

In summary we would also comment, because it is not necessarily to do with the bill, on the importance of the implementation of the scheme and the requirement for adequate resourcing and establishing of support systems to make sure that it goes through smoothly and that employees and parents have an entitlement to get any issues resolved or have access to easily disseminated information such as websites or phone lines and that sort of thing. That would need to happen fairly quickly and fairly efficiently, within the next few months really, for employees to know where to go. In addition, we seek that the terms of the review of the Paid Parental Leave Bill, which I think have been set for 2013 or 2014, depending on which review it is, have their objectives broadened to consider the overall effectiveness of the scheme, not just the particular aspects that have been mooted by the policy to date.

There are just a couple of points that we wanted to make in relation to some of the submissions that we have seen put up on the committee’s website. We note that there are some concerns from small businesses regarding the administration of the scheme and the potential costs. We have some evidence that suggests that the issues about payroll updates and so forth are perhaps not as substantial as we might be led to believe by some organisations, however the ACTU’s view is that if there is a genuine need for some support or assistance from the government to small business we would support that. We also note that there are some organisations who are anxious to ensure equity between mothers in paid and unpaid work to ensure that there is genuine choice for mothers in terms of how they wish to go about managing their work and family. Our calculations show that the financial value of the baby bonus, in terms of the tax offsets, in terms of the welfare entitlements and so forth, is pretty much equivalent to that of the paid parental leave scheme, depending on when your baby is born and what your particular financial structure is.

In principle we would support the notion that they remain equitable and that women have genuine choice, and we would support an indexation formula that ensured that that would continue into time. The ACTU is fully committed to supporting this bill, and we ask all politicians to support the bill. We think that, while it is not perfect, it is a very good model with very good foundations for us to build on, and we would like to see it introduced so that women like Sariah do not have to have the experience that she had with her first born. Hopefully when it comes to her second child she will have a much different experience thanks to the work of this committee and all the politicians who have assisted to get the bill this far.

CHAIR —Unions NSW, how are you going to handle this?

Ms Biddington —We would prefer to begin with Sariah’s statement, if we could.

Mrs Puriri-Giblin —Two and a half years ago my husband and I planned to have a baby. We planned that I would work up until I was at least eight months pregnant, and we would use my annual leave to have time off when my baby came. My husband also planned to take off at least three weeks as well, but unexpectedly on 21 February 2008 all our plans were pretty much thrown out the window. My pregnancy was not going too well, and I was admitted to hospital. I was told by the doctor that my baby was missing heartbeats and that they needed to do an emergency c-section straight away. I had no idea what was going on, and my husband was in tears because the doctor had said to him that my son and I had a 50 per cent chance of living. My husband was not allowed to come in with me, so he had to wait outside for the outcome. At 3.45 I had my son; they took him straight to the neonatal intensive care unit at Nepean Hospital. He was attached to cords, he was in an incubator and he only weighed 650 grams. We were grateful for the hospital helping us at the time, looking after our baby. Seven weeks after that I returned to work, because we were having financial difficulties and we were worried about losing our house. Going back to work was very stressful for me. I was not in the right frame of mind. I am a manager there and I was not really doing what a manager should be doing. I was really stressed out; I was probably messing up a lot. I was always the thinking about my child.

When I went back to work my day pretty much started at six in the morning. I would drop off my husband at work, I would go to work myself and then I would go and pick up my husband and we would go to the hospital. I had to breastfeed my son and then express milk before I left. When we went home I had to prepare dinner. Then I would return to the hospital again to feed my son, and then return home again to express more milk. I had to keep expressing milk because the doctors said breastmilk would help my son grow.

My husband went back to work the day after I had my son and he has not had a day off since then. Having a premature baby means that the child normally stays in the hospital up to full term, depending on the situation, and because my son has chronic lung disease, at 25 weeks this means that he would have to stay in hospital for at least 15 weeks.

Going back to work was tough. I never stopped thinking about him. I would have to express milk every three hours so that I did not lose my milk when my baby came home. My work does not have the facilities for me to breastfeed. I was expressing milk in a crew room. I felt really uncomfortable because the lock was not working on it and there was a big gaping hole down the bottom. I pretty much had to express milk with my foot holding the door. The majority of our staff are under 18, so I guess they do not see the need for supplying a more comfortable room. The added stress of returning to work caused difficulties with my breastmilk and my milk started to dry up. My doctor had to prescribe me with medication so that my milk would come back. That happened for only a little while and then it pretty much died off.

The World Health Organisation recommends that all babies should be breastfed for at least six months because breastmilk has the nutrients and antibodies that a baby needs in order to grow and fight infections. For my son this is more important because of his undeveloped organs and he is more prone to infections. His arrival, along with increasing living costs, has meant that it was impossible for me to take six month’s unpaid leave.

Every mother wants the best for her child. The first six months of a child’s life is crucial for a mother to be able to bond with her child. Other than worrying about the ongoing health of my son, I worry about how we will be able to cope financially. My son’s eyes at the time had not developed, so they said that he might have to come home on oxygen. Thankfully, that did not happen. We brought him home without oxygen.

If I had had paid maternity leave it would have taken a lot of stress off my husband and me, and it would have helped us out a lot. While this is just one story, I know that there are other mums whose babies were also at the hospital at the time and they were also in the same condition as me. Some of them had to come from Bathurst, Orange and all over the place because they did not have acute units where they were from. I think it is critical that Australia introduces paid maternity leave so that families are not overburdened financially and so that babies get the best out of life by being able to be breastfed for the first six months.

CHAIR —Ms Biddington, do you want to add anything?

Ms Biddington —Yes, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about the submission from Unions New South Wales. As a union official the whole issue of equity for women and addressing those concerns that come out of what has been the traditional role for women as being the carers and nurturers of babies has been a constant in my working life, and I know that there are others who have worked far longer than I have. Sadly, at this stage, I am thinking about those good people who have worked for the achievement of paid parental leave and who are no longer with us to celebrate this significant step. At the outset, Unions New South Wales believe that the significance of this bill—the proposition that it be a universal scheme for all—has got widespread benefits for a range of people.

Clearly, the way we processed our claim in relation to the paid parental leave claim was based on a child centred model, not on workers, so the universal scheme was therefore what we were looking for, because it would have particular benefits for a whole range of women who are not necessarily covered by industrial legislation. Key to that is the opportunity for parents, particularly the mother, to have time to bond with an infant. We are very concerned by the number of women who find themselves in situations of having to return to work up to one week after confinement. Not only is there then concern about the health of the mum but also about the ongoing relationship between the infant and the mother.

We see this bill as having particular benefits, wider than just the relieving the financial stress in society. Clearly that is something which should be considered in terms of the primary and coparents, but there are also benefits in terms of broader community health. There is evidence that mental health incidents in postconfinement or in situations of misadventure in birthing is really quite common. Beyondblue is an organisation that has recently released guidelines about that. So we are conscious that this goes beyond the individual. They say that a child needs a community to be raised, and that is the centre of our consideration in this. That does not mean that we are not very conscious of the significance of relieving the financial pressures on families, particularly on women who find themselves without a work identity and no income. We believe that this scheme being universal and available is critical to that. We acknowledge also what the World Health Organisation says about the value of breastfeeding for babies where that is possible.

Unions NSW takes absolutely no joy in seeing our country’s name on the list of two remaining OECD countries in the world without any universal scheme for parents to have access to leave for child-bearing. And that cuts deep. For a country that is remarkably acknowledged for being civilised and having a range of wins on the board in terms of early voting rights for women, we are very much at the last of the run on this one. But there is more significance in not coming last, I believe.

In considering what could be done about this problem—which it feels like has existed since we started walking—we come to 2010 realising there is an opportunity for this bill to become effective in January next year. So our primary message today is that Unions NSW strongly urges all politicians to pass this bill. We would prefer a situation of neutrality amongst all political parties and political leaders. We believe that this is fundamentally about community and that is good for the whole nation. It is not an issue where having a child is the problem of people who work. If we are going to have a nation of well-adjusted healthy individuals in the future, then that becomes a community consideration. It is not an issue of—as I have been told so many times by people—’We never had it, so why do they need support to have babies?’

On the weekend, as part of my role, I had approximately 150 conversations with people at the Sydney Mother’s Day Classic and I have decided that grandfathers are perhaps the easiest group of people to get support from for this bill. They relate very clearly to the financial stress that they felt as dads and that they see their children’s families dealing with. There is most certainly a very hardcore group of women who do believe that, if you want to have babies, you pay for it yourself. But there are also very widespread and very brave young women who said to their dads and mums on that day, ‘If this is something I am going to get, I want you to sign that petition, now.’ So I do believe that this is a generational problem, where the way women have been regarded for years has been in that construct of being the gender that bears the children and provides the nurturing.

That is how it has been but that does not mean that that is how it has to be any further. For Unions New South Wales this is a no-brainer. We do not want workers to have experiences like Suria. It is not a perfect model, we acknowledge that, but we also acknowledge that there is a low-paid third of women who, from 1 January, would be relieved to the extent of their full pay. We acknowledge that the others who will not be compensated to the extent of their full wage rate and their superannuation will not receive the same the advantage as that lower third but when a community looks after those who are at the bottom then that can surely only mean that those who are at the top are advantaged also.

I know it is tough. Charles Dickens wrote in the novel Oliver Twist about asking for more, because we always want more. It would not have been an interesting story if Oliver Twist had been given the porridge at the beginning of the book. The story was about the struggle—how we operate to struggle for more. At this stage I want people like Sariah, Ilana and others to have far better opportunities. It is bad enough to deal with a premature baby—a baby with special needs—and to suffer post-natal depression or to go through any of the experiences which are unfortunately common in childbirth without having to deal with the financial concerns. So that is where we find ourselves. Are we like Oliver Twist? I think we are; of course we want some more.

I turn to fundamental concerns are about the questions that face the political leaders of this nation in terms of continuing inequity between men and women in how they are regarded for their social inputs. We acknowledge that there is no superannuation in this. This continues the system where women will retire with less money. We acknowledge that the payment is made at the level of the federal minimum wage. We are looking forward to political leadership, at one stage, which can overcome those traditional barriers and mindsets. We want a systemic culture where children are valued, not as being a problem of the nuclear family but as community people we care for and value.

Even though I think they are brave step and I admire the co-parents and primary carers who are other than mum—it could be somebody else—the reality is that it feels as if it is giving permission to treat men as badly as women have been treated for raising children. When a man takes leave under this system it feels very much like the discounting that applies to women when they take the primary carer role. It is bad enough that women are treated that way for being primary carers, but this is now treating men as badly as women have been treated. Unions New South Wales thinks that has to change.

Unions New South Wales unequivocally supports the statements that the ACTU has made in relation to the matters that Belinda has spoken about in terms of eligibility for seasonal and non-permanent workers. Primary concern goes to those communities where work is dominated by agriculture workers, hospitality and tourism. There is not a lot of work for those people in the off-season. When you have a look at what happens in the northern part of Queensland, in the Whitsundays, you find rural communities where, when there is no seasonal work, it is very difficult for people to find other opportunities to work. So for those reasons we support what the ACTU says, and strongly encourage consideration of those issues—not only with regard to the eligibility of the individuals but, more critically, for the health of those communities where people work.

So, in not wanting to repeat what has already been well stated by Ms Tkalcevic this morning, can I say that, whatever happens, we acknowledge that this is the starting point for this legislation. It does not change our job in New South Wales: our role remains the same. The ACTU’s role remains the same—and that is to do the best to create an equitable and fair society that we work in. To close the gaps in fairness and justice is where our vision lies for the future. This scheme places us in a stronger place to go forward, to do those things in bargaining, where we can, and to improve the scheme in the future, where we can, and not to leave it for so long that we are waiting for another 26 years for further improvements.

Senator ADAMS —My first question is to Ms Tkalcevic. I have just been looking at your website, and I would like to ask you about a comment in the ‘frequently asked questions’ that you have posted on the website. You say here:

Is the government’s PPL scheme a certainty?

You comment that it should start on 1 January 2011, and the comment you have here is:

The Federal Opposition has stated that they will not block the legislation in the Senate, however the legislation could be delayed past 24 June 2010.

Could you explain that statement, please.

Ms Tkalcevic —I have not made that statement, and I was not aware that that was on the FAQ, but I guess where that is going is that there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment amongst union members and employees generally about what they will be entitled to, what it will look like and how it will work. Those of them who are expecting to have a baby in 2011, of course, want a lot of detail about how to make a claim and how much they will get, and the ACTU is trying to give them as much information and certainty as it can, but in the context that the legislation is obviously not finalised. So my view would be that what that is trying to say is that the policy statements that are currently up on the Family Assistance Office and FaHCSIA websites will give you guidance but that, until the legislation is through and final, we will just have to make do with that information.

Senator ADAMS —All right. Then I come to your petition, which is also on the website and obviously has been circulated on notice. It is on the police union’s website as well, and it may be on others; that is as far as I have got so far in looking at it. The statement there is:

After many decades of campaigning, Paid Parental Leave is finally within reach, but we need your help to make sure it happens.

As we are all aware, the federal government will shortly be introducing the PPL bill into the parliament. However, there has been some recent uncertainty regarding the opposition parties’ response to the bill and there remains concern as to whether the passage of the bill will be supported.

Could you just enlighten me as to why that comment has been made. I gather that particular statement has been circulated with the petition.

Ms Tkalcevic —Again, the petition was designed to encourage people who have been very supportive of paid parental leave in our community—people who are our union members and people working in workplaces—and who desperately want to see this legislation passed in time for its operation on 1 January 2011. It is to make sure that all political parties know that it is so important for them that it is passed. Really the primary purpose of the petition is to make it very clear to the opposition and to all the parties that this is something that is of fundamental importance to women like Sariah, who really want to see the scheme up and running in time for them to have a pleasant experience in having a newborn baby.

Senator ADAMS —As the only coalition senator here today, I feel that it is misinformation to be putting something like that out there, because the coalition parties have clearly stated that we are going to support the bill with amendments. Therefore, really, I think saying that is giving the public the wrong impression.

Ms Burrow —I apologise for being late—fog and airlines, not my fault. Frankly, we have little trust, I will be really honest. The petition is designed to shore up what is welcome support, if what you are saying is that the bill will be passed irrespective of whether amendments are accepted not—and I make no comment on amendments I have not seen to be supportive or otherwise. Frankly, it is absolutely critical that a party like yours, with a history where not too long ago your senators were in fact in total opposition to paid maternity or parental leave and are on the record as such—not you personally, Senator, but certainly some of your leaders. We have little trust, and you can understand that. I have a 32-year-old son and there are women older than me who have been campaigning for paid maternity leave for longer than that. So to go from zero dollars to 4½ months as a guarantee for those in the non-organised or non-bargaining sector is just like a dream and people are planning their lives around it. So we are leaving no stone unturned and we would urge the Greens as well to support the bill. This has to be a unity ticket, irrespective of whether people will seek to make changes over time.

Senator ADAMS —Ms Burrows, what I am saying is that the coalition has made the statement that they will support the bill and that they are hoping to improve it. I think that you are using that as a media stunt, the way that you are sending out the petition. I guess all is fair in love and war, it is politics—

Ms Burrow —But it is not about politics, Senator.

Senator ADAMS —but with something like this, with paid parental leave, the fact is that the coalition are prepared to support it. They have put out their own policy, it is different, but they are still supporting paid parental leave.

Ms Burrow —And I absolutely welcome that statement if you are going to support the bill, irrespective of whether amendments get up—and I am not quite hearing you say that. I know you have a policy. We never thought it would fly. I think, frankly, your leaders never thought it would fly. The business community has my respect on this one because the people who are going to pay already have paid maternity leave schemes, bargained with their workers through their unions. They will be added to this scheme so that those women will have 26 weeks or more, in most cases, and certainly when our next agreements come around it will be with superannuation. So if you are saying you will pass the bill irrespective of amendments lost or won, then we will welcome that, but I have not quite heard that.

Secondly, to be honest we had that commitment around the CPRS, and we know what happened. So if there is little trust on our side, and this one is a burning passion, please forgive us.

Senator ADAMS —Ms Puriri, thank you very much for your evidence. As a mother, I had the same problems. My son is a 35-year-old now, but when he was born he was nine weeks in a special nursery and I had to travel 3½ hours every week with breast milk. I was working on the farm, a little bit different to you. This legislation is stating 18 weeks paid leave, and you were quoting that six months for someone breastfeeding was the best possible time for you to bond with the child and everything else, and that perhaps, if you had had that time, you would not have had the problems that you had. Would you like to comment on that please?

Mrs Puriri-Giblin —My son was in the hospital for three months—12 weeks—so when he came out after three months—to have 18 weeks, that would only leave me with another six weeks or so to spend with my son while he was out of hospital. That is why I am saying six months paid maternity leave would have helped us out a lot. I used up all of my annual leave, I used up all of my sick leave, my husband used up all of his annual leave, so to have that extra time with my son would have helped us out. I would have loved to have spent that time with my son while he was out of hospital, and I did not get to do that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —In the submissions given by the ACTU and Unions South Wales, and in your verbal submissions as well, both of you indicated that there were significant improvements that you would be looking for in the future. I do pick up on the points you have made about wanting to strengthen the current legislation now in connection to the workplace, and that is something that we need to tease out a bit further. I guess that is why it is a good process for this Senate inquiry to be happening, to be honest. So I would like you to expand on that issue, but my first question is in relation to the fact that everybody at the table, including Ms Burrow, has said that this legislation is not perfect, that it needs to go further. We have heard we do not want to wait another 26 years, another 30 years to take it to the next level, so what is the time frame by which you think that it needs to be improved by?

Ms Burrow —We will look to do several things. One is that we will first of all consolidate and make sure that employers merge their schemes so that those with collective agreements will absolutely have at least 26 weeks. Most of the sector will actually end up having more, which is just a tremendous advantage. The issue of superannuation will be on our radar and we will certainly bargain for any deficit in regard to that security of retirement income. And we will do what we always do, we will then look to whether we can in fact talk to the government or use the award review process to see whether we cannot lock in some of those issues through fundamental awards, and where we can extend bargaining now with the low-paid bargaining provisions—they are yet to be tested, but we are very excited about them—in the Fair Work Act then we will again look to put it on the bargaining agenda. So there are a number of mechanisms industrially, which is where we usually set the benchmarks for achieving additional entitlements.

We are realists about public policy. If you take superannuation as an example, we started with three per cent. We always wanted to get 15. We now have a commitment in legislation—it will be in legislation, I hope, senators—that it will go to 12 per cent, and we will continue to argue. The way the industrial world works: if we did not stick at it, if we were not tenacious, if we expected Rome to be built in a day, then the working lives of Australians would be much poorer. So we will look at all mechanisms, including coming back to a government at some point in the future when we can demonstrate market inequity and arguing the case again.

But I have to stress again: to go from zero dollars to 4½ months, I am just asking you not to deny working women the security of that income, and, of course, their partners. We know that the Productivity Commission scoured the land for consultation. We respect their judgement. Of course we will always argue for improvement, that is actually our job, but at the same time when the women’s organisations around the country and the union movement have said, ‘This is a fair dinkum first step,’ then we are asking you to support it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —What is the commitment that you are looking for from government to making sure that this is not just a holding pattern?

Ms Burrow —We would say three things really. One is that we would like to see the review expanded, and we would urge you to support that. I know, Senator Hanson-Young, that you are interested in that. It would be a very good thing to be comprehensive because it is important that we monitor market failure, so that is the second thing, that between now and the review we would like to see it monitored. And, in the first instance, if we can get the review expanded and a couple of technical glitches—and given the scheme, we think the bill is very well drafted in the time that it has been constructed, and of course it has had the advantage of a consultative committee of women with expertise from a range of areas. That has been a good process, but there are still a couple of technical glitches. I am sure that Belinda and Jill have taken you through them, but we are particularly worried about seasonal work or those people who are stood down, say from school support staff or other professions, for perhaps a longer period of time but they have had a long-term cumulative attachment—usually to the same employer, but certainly the same occupation. So we would certainly ask you to fix those and maybe the others that my colleagues have put on the table.

If those three things are done, fixing a couple of those technical glitches now to make sure it is not excluding people that I do not think anyone would want to see excluded, we would want to see the review not just of the superannuation but also of the administrative arrangements of the scheme and what it is adding to by way of participation. We should be monitoring labour force participation because one of the economic advantages of this scheme—other than the social justice issue, as you would know—is if we are going to get participation rates to 70 per cent—and that is the target of COAG and Skills Australia—then one of the most underrepresented groups is women of childbearing age, in fact, amongst the lowest in the world. I can assure you that we will continue to press, but if the senators could look towards expanding the review, keeping the monitoring on track—both in terms of market equity and also participation—leading up to that review, I think that would be very helpful.

Ms Biddington —We could envision a wonderful world if we had the opportunity. You are right, we do not believe that it is perfect. I think that Ms Burrow has outlined the major issues. I would like to add the current provisions under the Fair Work Act which provide women returning from maternity leave the right to request part-time work. This is a lovely way to frame something and say that someone has the right to request it, but there is actually no entitlement to it.

I will relay a story which comes from a regional area around Byron Bay. It relates to a police officer, a single mum who had a child, her third child. In requesting the right to return to work she was told by area command that she could do that, she could return for 24 hours a week, which was two shifts. She is a single mum and childcare centres do not run for 12 hours a day. Her capacity to return to work was absolutely zero. She counter-offered and said: ‘Could I return to work for three days of eight hours?’ ‘No, because we have 12-hour shifts.’ She is a woman without any family in the area and the current childcare system does not operate on the basis of 12-hours care. Her employer could not understand why she could not afford to pay a nanny. These things are the real-life experiences of women who are highly valued and want to go back to work, but the world is not flexible for them. It operates around what employers are stuck in, their own mindset of what is best.

If it is not a police officer and it is someone like Sariah—and perhaps Sariah can tell the story about when she returned to work and asked for breastfeeding leave—there is a difficulty there too. I think you were told, Sariah, that maybe you had better come back in 12 months time when you had it sorted out.

Mrs Puriri-Giblin —Yes. Because I am a manager they did not see how I was going to work as a manager, running shifts, running my crew and dealing with customers. I needed three hours to express milk, but she could not find a way for me to do that while I was trying to run my shift because I would be the only manager on duty. She could not find 20 minutes out of the day for me to sit down and express milk. She asked me to come back after 12 months. I did not have paid maternity leave where I worked and I did not know how or where I was going to get that extra money to stay at home and do that, so I said: ‘No, I have to come back to work.’

Ms Biddington —That would be one thing Unions New South Wales would want attention on. It is really critical for someone to be to take their leave and return to work—that is what we are basing it on. It is about the dignity of people being able to return to work. That is one issue that we which like recognition of. Apart from that, I think Ms Burrow has said it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —In saying that, I guess there are amendments that you are both looking for. Our challenge here is that we want to get a scheme up and running but we want to make sure it is the best possible scheme we can deliver. Of course there needs to be some tightening up of the legislation. We have pointed out the issue of seasonal workers, for example. I am picking up on Senator Adams’s point that there are going to have to be amendments that are made to this legislation, even just to satisfy you guys. In order to do that, we will have to take evidence from the committee, draft the report, put the amendments to the Senate and work our way through it. What is going to be most helpful from my perspective is to have you guys supporting that process and not suggesting that anyone at this table does not want to get a scheme up and running. I totally understand Mrs Puriri-Giblin’s predicament. This is an issue that affects women across all sectors, particularly those in the lower income brackets, particularly those in the casualised workforce, particularly those in seasonal work. We need to make sure we actually get it right so that they do not just happen to miss out because we cannot get those amendments up.

Ms Burrow —And let me be clear, Senator: we appreciate that and we are well aware of the good work that Senate committees do and that people find consensus around issues to either fix glitches or strengthen the bill. All we are looking for is that the three sets of folk—the opposition coalition, the Greens and the independent senators—say that they will have the debate, strong and hard, on any amendments they want to put up but, at the end of the day, they will not oppose this scheme. That would leave working women devastated—those women who now know they can plan finally around having children with income security next year. If they lose this, if we go into an election period and have another round of debate about a scheme, we could see two years elapse before women would again have any optimism, and there would be a lot of trauma and tragedy in the meantime. So we are certainly not discouraging you from the amendment process or robust debate—that is in fact your job—but we are asking on this bill that there is a fundamental commitment to see the bill through.

CHAIR —Senator Hanson-Young, you have run out of time already, but if you have one more question you can ask it and we will see how we go.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —My question is on superannuation. I understand that the ACTU—and perhaps the other unions—were involved in the consultation process for drafting the legislation to some extent. What is your understanding of the reasoning as to why superannuation is not included?

Ms Burrow —It is a cost issue for the government. You would have to ask the government that, but it is a cost issue for them. That is my understanding of the rationale. It is not an oppositional piece. As we said in the submissions, it is such a little cost to the employer for the rate of return they get in terms of participation and reduction in costs of turnover. Talk to any major company. I think we have got a big education process with small to medium business. I might take this opportunity to say, if my colleagues did not, that if there are recommendations that would assist in the education process for small business then we would very much welcome and support those. But look at big business and ask any of them. We were in Woolworths a couple of weeks ago when Jenny Macklin released this, and the Woolworths manager said it is a saving on their bottom line. Frankly, we have got two ways to go on superannuation. We will certainly bargain for it where we can and where there is a market inequity. We will come back to that review. If you work miracles and change the government’s mind, that will be a good thing, but I do not suspect, given the debate that has gone on on this, that we will win this this time. But certainly the review piece there, to look at it next time and look at where there is market inequity, is absolutely fundamental for us.

Senator ADAMS —I can guarantee that the coalition will not block this legislation, and if we are elected we will improve it.

Ms Burrow —I appreciate that.

Senator FURNER —Thank you both for your submissions. As always, they are concise and right to the points. I have a couple of questions with regard to some of the employer groups’ submissions. Firstly, what is the position from the ACTU in respect of employer groups arguing that they do not wish to be paymasters?

Ms Burrow —I have urged ACCI to talk to their small business constituency. I do not believe it is a universal view. We talk to small business, as much as they are represented by ACCI, and we respect that. We also of course speak to them not only as representatives of working people but also in general conversation. I think there are many small businesses which well understand this is a gift for them. It is about retaining skilled workers in an otherwise increasingly difficult labour market in sections. They know that it generates the kind of loyalty and appreciation that you get when somebody feels that they have the backing and the trust that comes with the income security and the job security of paid and unpaid parental leave.

So we would urge small business to actually think about the fact that it is no different to them paying a wage. I do understand, because I have spoken to a lot of them and indeed to ACCI, that there may need to be an additional line on the computer program or a slight update and that maybe for some small business, while it is not a lot of money, they could perhaps be assisted. We will leave ACCI to tell you what would work, but we have urged them and I would ask you to simply encourage them to figure out how to do it. I think to not see small business do this, given the capacity to actually be the paymaster, detaches people from the labour market. It makes the women and their partners simply feel as though they are not valued in the same way as in other businesses and I cannot believe that, once the system is up and running and the computerisation is possible, it will be very difficult.

Senator FURNER —I listened intently to your concerns expressed earlier about the opposition. There is morning I downloaded the opposition’s budget in response speech. I note that the opposition leader referred to a modest levy on companies with a taxable income over $5 million a year—I think it is a $2.7 billion tax on those businesses. In your experience, what will that do to those businesses and, in particular, what will it do to women employees, and also prospective women employees, in those businesses should that opposition policy or proposal be accepted?

Ms Burrow —There are two points of principle here. One is a practical point and one is a point of principle. The practical point is that we already have paid maternity leave schemes right throughout most businesses that would be deemed to be on the larger side of the ledger. Some of them are terrific schemes; some of them are not yet perfect but they are in the bargaining process. For example, there are schemes where you already have 26 weeks paid maternity leave. It may not yet have cut in but it is in the bargaining arrangement and the government’s contribution will effectively go to the employer. We think that is fair enough. There are others who we will be encouraging to get there by one way or another, whether they simply use the government scheme first and then they top up to 26 weeks, plus superannuation, and there will be others who we will have to encourage along the way either to start new schemes or to build on the government scheme or otherwise. So this scheme has been very well crafted to merge with existing operations already in the marketplace and we respect that. If we were to look towards a levy in that context it is (a) impractical but (b) it is actually unfair. Why would you double-tax employers—it is strange for me to be concerned about big business costs—who are actually doing the right thing?

We have long settled on the orthodoxy—I always want to remind people that not all small businesses are actually marginal; there are actually many wealthy small businesses—with that qualification, that small business will only support a government scheme. That is pretty much the case around the world and so this is a settlement.

When you come to a government scheme, I think there is a point of principle. Do we ultimately want to see full income replacement? Yes we do. But do we think that, if a government has a universal scheme, it should actually pay differential entitlements to different women because of their wages? I am not sure; we need to debate that. On that point of principle, we have never had that conversation, as a nation. And what the opposition’s levy would do is to say, ‘We are going to put a levy on business’—those that will pay, if they will pay, and I do not believe they will but if they will pay—’and then we are going to dole it out in a discriminatory way.’

I would just remind people that we have bargained, and we will always be able to bargain, for those with economic and industrial power or influence. The women we are looking after, as well as providing a base for all women, are those who have no dollars in their account, no dollars to take to prop up their family—like Sariah. And we are sad that Ilana is stuck in the fog. But these women represent thousands of women. So I think there is a point of principle: we should have that debate about whether money coming in to government is differentially distributed, and we have not. Secondly, we should recognise that if government is going to put up a base scheme—and we congratulate them for it—then, administratively, we want it to not undermine what the employers contribute already. And I respect the employers that have taken that stand.

CHAIR —Senator Marshall, do you have a question?

Senator MARSHALL —I just want to seek your indulgence a little. I understand this may well be Ms Burrow’s last appearance before a Senate committee.

Ms Burrow —It could well be! I doubt there is going to be much legislation before the end of June, other than this piece.

Senator MARSHALL —So I guess, with your indulgence, Chair, and speaking as the chair of the education, employment and workplace relations committee, I just wanted to thank you, Ms Burrow, for your many years of coming to Senate committees. As Senator Furner mentioned earlier, the submissions from the ACTU are always excellent in their detail. They are informative for the committees, and I know members—even of the current opposition—have actually used the information provided by your organisation to good advantage.

In respect to you, you have brought a professionalism and an intellectual capacity to your role as president which is admired, certainly by me and I think most of the Senate. So I wanted to thank you for making the trade union movement proud—and they have got a lot to be proud of with the contribution you have made.

Ms Burrow —Thank you, Senator Marshall. I am humbled.

CHAIR —That is the end of this session. Ms Burrow, we want to add our community affairs committee thanks to you, and also to note the long-term effort you have made, around this issue amongst many other issues. And we are sorry you missed the opening because we would have done it then.

Ms Burrow —Thank you, Senators.

CHAIR —Mrs Puriri-Giblin, thank you so much. I know that coming and talking about what you are going through, about your own experiences, is not always easy. But in this kind of inquiry, most of the submissions and a lot of the evidence will be from organisations that represent people. It is very rewarding for us to have the evidence of someone who actually has their own issues that they want to talk about themselves. So thank you very much.

Mrs Puriri-Giblin —Thanks.

[10.14 am]