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Who cares? Work and family policy in Australia.

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Friday 27 June 2003

Marian Baird, Senior Lecturer, Work and Organisational Studies, School of Business, University of Sydney


Who Cares? Work and Family Policy in Australia  


We are in the midst of fundamental social shifts in Australia which require innovative policy and genuine leadership. In terms of the workforce, these shifts include a growing reliance on women’s contribution to the paid labour force, with implications for the care of the young and the aged. In terms of the workplace, they include leaner organisations under more competitive pressures. The clash between the two - the workforce and the workplace - is emerging as one of the most important concerns of contemporary Australia.  


Despite this, appropriate and relevant employment and workplace policy has not been forthcoming. So, who does care about work and family? The Commonwealth Government has largely relinquished its role as the pace-setter of better work standards, leaving it to employees and employers to haggle over working conditions.  


It is in this context that earlier this week the Australian Council of Trade Unions launched a Test Case in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for more flexible family leave arrangements. 


Standards we now take for granted were introduced as a result of earlier Test Cases. For example, the 52 weeks unpaid parental leave provision was first established by the 1979 and 1990 Maternity and Paternity Leave Test Cases. The more recent Family Carer’s Leave Test Cases of 1994 and 1995 enable employees to use some of their annual and sick leave for carer’s leave if necessary. The results are not always exactly as the ACTU wants, but the point is that without the ACTU pushing these issues, improvements would be negligible because no-one else seems to be taking the initiative. 


One recent illustration of the lack of government leadership and policy development in the whole work and family area is the specific issue of paid maternity leave. It was the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission - not the Commonwealth government - that recommended a model of paid maternity leave that would have seen Australia finally meeting international standards, had it been implemented.  


In contrast to Australia, governments in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Denmark have taken the lead to improve the work-family balance and to restructure policies about working hours and leave so that they begin to meet the needs of workers and their families. Whereas here, flexibility has primarily suited the interests of employers and organisations. 


Amidst the increasing community and employee concern about the work - family - life clash, the voice for change in Australia has had to come from the union movement. The ACTU’s proposal for changes in leave provisions and the right to request variations in working hours are path-breaking for Australia. The main components of the ACTU claim include:  


Ø A right for parents to request a reasonable change in hours, start and finish times and place of work to meet parental needs;  

Ø An extension of the current year’s unpaid parental leave to two years and a right to part-time work until the child reaches school age; 

Ø A right to purchase extra leave and to unpaid emergency leave; and 

Ø A requirement that employers consult with employees about significant changes while they are on parental leave. 


In Australia, as in the USA and the UK, there is a growing realisation that the institutions and practices that regulate work no longer align with the needs and interests of employees, their families and our community. This is not a sustainable social position, and in my view, further withdrawal of government from policy leadership is also not the answer.  


Ironically, given the deregulation of the industrial relations system in Australia, one institution that can still affect policy outcomes, is the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Thus, the first stage of change about work and family may come about as a result of the ACTU Test Case. However, given the nature of the Commission, as an adjudicator and balancer of the arguments of all key players (unions, employers and government), it is unlikely that the result will be as innovative or revolutionary as Australia probably requires. But it is a beginning - a beginning of the reconstruction of the social arrangements that all of Australia needs in order to harmonise our work and care roles, so that we can make the most of the 21st century.  


Guests on this program:


Dr Marian Baird  

Dr Baird is a senior lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies in the School of Business in the Faculty of Economics 

University of Sydney