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1998 Corporate Work and Family Awards, Sheraton on the Park Hotel, Sydney, 22 July 1998: speech.



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THE HON PETER REITH MP

MINISTER FOR WORKPLACE RELATIONS AND SMALL BUSINESS

LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

 

PARLIAMENT HOUSE

CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

22 July, 1998

 

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON PETER REITH MP

1998 CORPORATE WORK AND FAMILY AWARDS

SHERATON ON THE PARK HOTEL, SYDNEY

 

Mr Gill from the Australian Financial Review, Mr Paterson from ACCI, Rowan Squirchuk, Daniel Petre, Julie Owen, Peter Shergold (the Secretary of my Department), Katherine Harris, Pru Goward, many distinguished guests, ladies and gen tlemen.

 

Firstly, many thanks for your contribution. One of my frequent tasks, s’pose to speak at lunch and it’s often the case that someone speaks before you. And I wonder how I can incorporate what they’ve just said into what I would then follow by commenting on.

 

Much of what you had to say was very relevant of course to the political process. I don’t know whether I could say that I could stand here as a workaholic hero, probably with the later description deleted. I s’pose I’m one of those people I feel if I haven’t put in 15 hours a day thinking, worrying, or doing something about politics, I feel guilty. And how we apply what you’ve said, I think is a real challenge for the politicians. But I tell you what, I’m damn glad you did say it. And we ought to get you down to Canberra and say it there. Nothing irritates my wife more than when she hears of a politician announcing their resignation when they say, they say they’re going for family reasons. It’s usually the last reason.

 

So I’m delighted to be here to present these Corporate Work and Family Awards. It’s great to see such a terrific turnout. I s’pose for me also, the other thing that sort of came into my mind as I was listening to Daniel is that, to me this is such commonsense, such a great idea. It seems ridiculous that we need to have a lunch to promote it because really everybody ought to be into this. And they ought to be into it for their own sake, for the clear benefits that will arise for everybody from being involved in such an approach. But it’s often the case, good ideas need to be sold. And today’s opportunity provided by the sponsors and others, does give us the chance to focus on what is just a great idea and which needs general promotion within the community.

 

So I thank the Australian Financial Review, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Council for Equal Opportunity in Employment for co-sponsoring these awards. I would also like to acknowledge the co-sponsorship of the Awards by my own Department, the Work and Family Unit in particular, Allison Morehead and her team. Lastly, and probably most importantly, thank you to the many people who are applicants, who have been organisers and judges, all of whom have made today’s event possible and made it successful.

 

There is again a high level of interest in the awards, reflecting the fact that more and more employers are recognising that effective work and family policies are good for business as good for their employees.

 

Family-friendly is a term that is bandied around quite a bit these days. The fact that an increasing number of employers recognise that employees have to balance their work and family responsibilities is certainly a welcome step in the right direction. But let’s stop and think just what this term really means. In essence, it’s all about flexibility. It means that employers take account of the fact that their workers don’t exist in a vacuum where they only live to serve the needs of an organisation. Rather, they have personal lives that need to be integrated with their work lives. And employers want the flexibility that their business requires. They need to be able to employ staff in a variety of ways — for various hours, at various times — so that employment patterns fit with things like extended opening hours and peak demand periods. And the great thing about this type of flexibility is that with a bit of thought and commitment, it benefits both sides, both employers and employees.

 

In the old days of industrial relations in this country, the centralised system tried to base itself around a stereotype of a male breadwinner, and a wife at home with the kids. The problem with that model is that it just doesn’t fit Australian workers today — even those families where there is a male breadwinner supporting his family.

 

Many families today have both parents in the workforce. And for those families where only the father works, he often spends many hours at his job — and he does this because of his age and the stage he is at in his career, and because he is, for the moment at least, the sole breadwinner. The fact is that working fathers with young dependent children often work more hours per week than any other group in the economy. As well, about 60 per cent of women with dependent children are in the workforce, and many of them work part-time. In other words, the modern workforce is made up of a diversity of worker-types, and any industrial relations system that assumes one model will fit everyone is doomed to fail. And that’s why we need a much more flexible system to recognise that diversity.

 

The first step toward a workplace being family-friendly, I think, is when employers recognise this diversity and that employees outside needs are an important and integral consideration in productive enterprises.

 

For example, let’s suppose that a mother is working in an assembly line at a factory and she is worried about her young child at home or elsewhere. She wants to be re-assured by the carer of her child that the child is okay, pretty natural concern that any parent would have. Now I know that for the people attending today, this would probably be a non-issue in their organisation. The mother would pick up the phone and ring. That’s easy. But I was disappointed to find, in the results of the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey that my Department released last year, that about a quarter of the Australian workforce who worked at workplaces with 20 or more people, did not have access to a phone at work to use for family purposes. So what do people who are working in that situation feel like? They want their employer to recognise a really simple basic emotional need which to be fulfilled, simply needs access to a phone. A pretty reasonable demand and one which is for many businesses is yet to be fulfilled.

 

Of course, a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach can be found in the organisations who made the finalist categories in this year’s Awards. This sort of approach goes much further than simply providing phones for family purposes. Such an approach incorporates family-friendly measures into the very core of the working conditions offered to employees. It brings the needs of the employees to centre stage, it gets them out in the open, and it listens to employees when they express their need to balance work and family.

 

Instead of the one-size fits all approach of the past, what we see now through the range of choices available under the Workplace Relations Act, is the opportunity for employees to sit down with their employers and tailor their working conditions to suit them at their particular stages in the life cycle. And the employer and the employee both win out of these arrangements. It gives flexibility. And this sort of flexibility produces workers who are less anxious about their personal lives while they’re at work, and therefore more productive. It produces better bottom lines for business.

 

Let’s look again at our diverse types of workers. For the father who is working long hours while supporting his young family, we might find a range of measures to assist him balance his responsibilities and Daniel touched some of them. He might have access for example, to parental leave when a child is born. He might want to work later in the evening so he can drop the kids off at school, or conversely, leave earlier in the day to shop for dinner on his way home. He might want to work a compressed week, where his weekly hours are fitted into fewer days, leaving some days free for sharing with his family. He might want to work fewer hours. Now under the rigid rules of the past, we’ve often found that employers didn’t even have the authority to be flexible in the face of these needs. Restrictive conditions set out in industrial awards often meant the employer had no choice but to follow the letter of the award even when it was obvious that it wasn’t working for their workers for whom it was supposed to provide protection and benefit.

 

Through the process of award simplification that the Government has put in place, employees with family responsibilities are better off. For example, we know that mothers of small children often choose to be employed for much shorter hours at this stage o f their life. Sometimes a paid job of a few hours a day allows these employees to both keep in the labour force and manage their substantial caring responsibilities. In the past, restrictive award requirements meant that these workers would be forced to work as casuals simply because of the hours they worked. Now however, awards can no longer automatically specify minimum and maximum hours for part-time work. This means you can now work shorter shifts and yet be covered by all the protections that regular part-time work delivers. And in addition, you also have the opportunity provided as being a permanent member of the workforce of the training and other benefits which can accrue to permanent workers. Once again, we see the benefits for both employers and employees in this sort of more flexible arrangement. Employers can put staff on according to the peak demands of the business, and employees get the regularity in their part time work that makes balancing their work and family responsibilities easier.

 

Of co urse, not all employers who care about work and family issues have developed formalised family-friendly policies. In the case of small businesses for example, we often find that managers deal with these issues on a more informal basis which you can understand. I am pleased to see though that this year we have a small business represented amongst the finalists. And let me take this opportunity to remind you that small businesses can now be assured that if they choose to formalise their policies through agreement-making, the system will work for them and not against them which has been the case in the past. While our previous attempts at recognising the efforts of small businesses in this area didn’t draw much attention, I think we should have another look at how this very important part of the economy tries to achieve this balance between work and family.

 

An increasing number of organisations are taking advantage of the new framework for making workplace agreements. Many, including a number of this year’s awards entrants, have demonstrated that agreement-making provides considerable opportunity for organisations to show their commitment to meeting the work and family needs of their employees. They’ve used the agreement-making process as a means of introducing policies and practices which directly benefit employees and at the same time are good for the success.

 

Let me just mention two examples for the awards finalists of different ways in which agreements made under the new Act have been used:

 

AMP has used its 1997 certified agreement to build on its impressive range of family-friendly policies, having first identified staff needs through a comprehensive survey. The agreement reconfirms the company’s commitment to family-friendly work practices and aims to assist AMP in becoming an employer of choice for workers with family responsibilities. The company’s work and family program has produced substantial productivity benefits, including reduced staff turnover in key areas and improved rates of return from maternity leave.

 

The National Australia Bank has used its latest certified agreement to introduce a range of new and improved work and family initiatives. By consulting with employees which is a good idea just in itself, responding to their needs, and continuously evaluating and improving policies and practices, the Banks been able to achieve positive outcomes for the organisation. New initiatives include:

 

* job sharing;

* a career break scheme;

* payment of 3 weeks pay at the commencement of maternity leave and another 3 weeks on return to work;

* arrangements to accommodate women who wish to breast feed;

* providing training courses at family-friendly times;

* an elder care referral service;

* a strategy to enhance career opportunities for employees with family responsibilities; and,

* increased flexibility in working hours.

 

A recent study by my department’s Work and Family Unit of certified agreements made under the Act, reveals that over 77% of such agreements include a range of flexible working provisions. Examples of such provisio ns are paid parental leave, flexible working hours and flexible leave arrangements. As at the end of April 1998, more than 1200 certified agreements had three or more provisions of this kind contained within them and the number is growing.

 

Significant numbers of workplaces are also pursuing family-friendly arrangements in the federal system through Australian Workplace Agreements. And it’s good to see Alan Rowe here who is the Employment Advocate. These individual employment agreements available under the Act recognise the need of modern workplaces for closer and direct relations between individual workers and their employer. Some of the examples we’ve had coming through the AWA’ s include employees returning to work from maternity leave by working from home on a part-time basis; employees being able to develop their own workplace roster system; and revised starting times established for shifts, which allow employees to take their children to school. The employees in this case were prepared to forgo penalty rates, which were applicable to the first few hours of some shifts under the relevant award, on the basis that the new shifts suited them better than their existing arrangements.

 

I mention the AWAs because they are one of the number of initiatives in the Workplace Relations Act which allow you to have an individual agreement. You can also have them in a collective form. But let’s face it, when we talk about the problems of a one size fits all approach which was the old approach. In the new approach when we give people options for settling arrangements to suit them, we give them a number of choices. They can have a collective deal for everybody in the business or they can have an individual agreement, or they can have a number of collective agreements, depending on various aspects of the business organisation. What we say in the management of these agreements is that we want a deal that suits the people in the business. Not some deal that’s been imposed from the outside.

 

But we say for the people in the business and for the benefit of the business, why can’t we encourage them to sit down together and work out something that suits them. And we’ve also incorporated as one of the conditions for agreement making, and that is that people have to agree. They’ve actually got to sign off as it were, by majority in respect of collective agreements. And the great thing about that simple change is that is does require employers to sit down and consult with employees. And by all means if people want to have a representative registered organisation (a union) assist them in negotiation, in the end these are decisions that must be made by employees. And I say if you give employees a greater say, then they will demand a better deal for them, and an opportunity for them to better balance these work and family responsibilities.

 

You’ll find a lot more examples of these family friendly agreements in the paper Australian Workplace Agreements — a tool for improving the work and family balance. And copies of this particular document I’m told are available from the display tables at the conclusion of the lunch. That particular paper shows how the individual nature of AWAs gives employers and employees much greater flexibility in setting wages and conditions. It explains how AWAs can be used, and are being used by many employers and their employees as a simple and effective means of pursuing work and family balance. I commend that to you. Over 20,000 AWAs have so far been approved. And many people are finding them useful for their own individual circumstances.

 

Ladies and gentlemen in conclusion, today’s award entrants are examples of companies and organisations seeking to develop and implement initiatives to better meet the work and family needs in their organisations. They’ve been very different workforces, different workplace cultures, different business needs and different challenges. Some organisations are seeking quite radical change through the introduction of a range of policies and practices, while others are building on initiatives already in place which are producing positive outcomes for both employees and the employer.

 

The types of initiatives being introduced are exactly what the Government had in mind when it made balancing work and family responsibilities a central part of the Workplace Relations Act.

 

All entrants to the awards are to be congratulated for the effort s they’re making. I hope that these awards will stimulate greater management interest and recognition of the benefits for helping employees better combine working and home lives. And I do particularly commend the finalists, all of which provide very good role models for broader Australian industry.

 

Once again, thank you to all Award entrants and I look forward to congratulating the winners.

 

 

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