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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 804

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (11:25): It is with great pleasure that I introduce this bill. I strongly suspect that the reason that we hear the term 'work/life balance' so much these days is because we have less balance between these two important dimensions of our existence than we should. The figures show that the average full-time working week in Australia is 44 hours—the longest in the developed Western world. Research shows that these sorts of working hours are impacting on our wellbeing, with poorer health and greater use of prescription medications. It is also affecting our personal and family lives. Sixty per cent of women say that they feel consistently time pressured and nearly half of men also feel this way. Almost half of all fathers in couple households work more than they would prefer, and one-third of women working full time would also prefer to work less, even taking into account the impact that this might have on their income.

On average, full-time employees would like to work about 5.6 hours less per week, while part-time workers would like to work around four hours less than they are currently working. In addition, we perform $72 billion of unpaid overtime each year as a country. It cuts the other way too. There are many people—though according to the studies a lesser number—who would like to work more hours than they are currently working but are unable to. A 2010 study on the health and working conditions of approximately 78,000 working Australians concluded:

… it may be counterproductive for employers to expect long working hours as employees are likely to take more time off and work less efficiently.

The study also commented that there is considerable evidence of an association between work demands and poor health. We have a situation where just over half of all Australians want to change their hours of work, even if this might impact on their income.

There is no doubt that many good employers already recognise the benefits of providing flexible working arrangements. However, this recognition is not as widespread as it could, or should, be. The Greens want people to have more control over their time and their working arrangements. We need a better match between the hours people want to work and the hours that they actually work.

I am pleased that the government has indicated that it wants to examine the desirability of extending flexible work entitlements. I note that the ACTU, prominent academics, Carers Victoria, government advisory bodies and many others have also advocated extending the right to request flexible working arrangements. The current legislated mechanism to request flexible working arrangements is only available to employees who have caring responsibilities for children under school age, or children under 18 with a disability. Employers can refuse on reasonable business grounds, but there are no mechanisms for appeal. The mechanism is well-intentioned but it is narrow and unenforceable. It can be strengthened. It should be strengthened. With the support of parliament for the passage of this bill, it will be strengthened.

The better work/life balance bill will extend the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees unless there are reasonable business grounds for refusal. In addition, the right to request would be strengthened for those with caring responsibilities, with employers only able to say no where there are serious countervailing business reasons. In all instances, ongoing employees must have performed a minimum of 12 months service before the request can be made. If an employee's request for flexible working arrangements is refused, Fair Work Australia would be empowered to hear an appeal and, where appropriate, make flexible working arrangement orders. The bill also reflects my belief that, wherever possible, enterprise bargaining and enterprise agreements should be the best mechanism for providing better industrial outcomes. 'Flexible working arrangements' is inserted into the list of permitted matters that can be included in an agreement and I hope this will occur wherever a new agreement is being negotiated. Where an agreement does include such matters, they will take precedence. This is important because there may be some areas where, for example, it is not appropriate to have someone working for a very short period of hours. We do not want to end up with a situation where, for example, we have professional firefighters working two or three hours a week as that has the potential to undermine the important level of skills and training that are required to perform so many of these jobs. In such instances, one would expect to find in an enterprise agreement the appropriate way of dealing with questions of flexible working arrangements.

In relation to modern awards, a term will have no effect where it is less favourable than those determined by Fair Work Australia in a flexible working arrangements order. In addition, state and territory laws will be overridden if they are inconsistent or less beneficial than those provided for in this bill. All of that is subject to there being a provision in the enterprise agreement.

Allowing workers to have more control over their time will be a productivity bonus for the economy. Business will benefit from this reform, including employers who are already promoting flexible working arrangements so that employees can achieve a better work-life balance. Satisfied employees are likely to remain in a workplace longer, be healthier and be more productive. If people want to work different hours or work from home so that their life is better, then the law should allow it and society should encourage it, provided it does not unduly impact on their employer.

The bill recognises that carers play a special role in our society. Caring for those close to us must be a central concern for our society, and is important to the economy. People need greater control over their time, not just to look after kids but also, increasingly, to look after parents and grandkids, as well as foster children, people with disabilities, people with extended illnesses—the list goes on and on. For this reason, the bill defines carer simply as 'an employee who has responsibility for the care of another person'. In addition, as I have referred to, the bill raises the threshold test to 'serious countervailing business reasons' before employers can refuse a request for flexible working arrangements.

There are more women working more hours in paid employment but there is still the unpaid caring to do. With caring still done predominantly by women, there is a growing double burden on women and their families. If we are serious about supporting women returning to work after having had kids, we can and should do many things, not only expanding accessibility, quality and affordability of child care but also giving a legally enforceable right to flexible working arrangements.

As I have referred to, the provisions do not remove the capacity for managerial decisions to be made regarding working hours and working arrangements. If there are legitimate business reasons against a request, it can be declined.

The bill is not radical or unprecedented. A number of countries have various types of legislative mechanisms for people to request flexible working arrangements, and a serious countervailing business reasons test has been used in the Netherlands since 2000.

A review of flexible working arrangement laws in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK showed that a number of valuable lessons had been learned and a number of myths dispersed regarding the laws. There was a reasonable but manageable level of requests. The Netherlands had the highest level of requests, with 14 per cent of employees, while the UK had only 3½ per cent and Germany recorded less than one per cent. But, significantly, the majority of requests in each country were acceptable to employers. Costs were not a major problem with implementation and sometimes even resulted in savings. In addition, very few requests ended up in dispute. In the Netherlands and Germany, fewer than 30 requests per country resulted in court action in the first two years of the law.

The overseas experience suggests that being obliged to provide flexible work for employees may in fact help companies by ensuring that they examine alternative models that they may not have considered previously. An expanded right to request flexible working arrangements, as I have said, does not override management prerogative. It simply ensures full and proper consideration is given and provides an enforceable right and oversight from Fair Work Australia.

If this bill is passed, it will also will not undermine those very important industries and sectors, like firefighters—and there may be many others as well—where control over the working time is necessary to ensure that there is not industrial disputation between differing people working differing hours side by side in environments where harmony and consistency and equality of payments and arrangements are necessary.

A legislative approach will help drive positive cultural change in relation to flexible working arrangements by providing a clear framework and criteria for requests and, importantly, it will begin to remove the stigma of fathers and mothers—anyone who has to care for another person, anyone who wants to have more control over their life—requesting that change.

I commend the bill to the House.

Bill read a first time.