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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 9891

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:16): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2012. The Australian Greens will be seeking leave to move amendments—we are calling them the better work/life balance amendments—that mirror the Fair Work Amendment (Better Work/Life Balance) Bill 2012 introduced by my colleague Adam Bandt in the other place.

Statistics constantly tell us that in Australia there is often a mismatch between the hours that people actually work and the hours that they want to work. 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, as a country we perform $72 billion of unpaid overtime each year. 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.

The Australian Work and Life Index—AWALI—is an annual study by the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia. I am familiar with the work of AWALI, and it is held in great respect. The authors use the term 'work/life interference', and the 2012 data shows it is persistent and for some people getting worse. The report noted that around one-quarter of the Australians surveyed report that work frequently, often or almost always interferes with other life activities. Women's work/life outcomes are worse than men's when we take into account differences in work hours. Long hours and a poor fit between actual and preferred working hours are both associated with worse work/life outcomes. Most of those who work long hours would prefer not to. I am sure it is not a sentiment that would be understood by members of this chamber or the other place, but apparently that is the case in Australia!

Unfortunately, things are getting worse for women working full time. Work/life interference for this group has increased from 2007 to 2012. Full-time women's dissatisfaction with their work/life balance has risen from 15.9 per cent in 2008 to 27.5 per cent in 2012. In 2012 the gap between full-time women's actual and preferred hours is the largest since 2007. On average, they would prefer to work 8.7 hours a week less than they actually do. 41.8 per cent of mothers in full-time employment would prefer to work part time. This is the largest proportion since 2007.

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 Australian Greens want people to have more control over their time and working arrangements. We need a better match between the hours people want to work and the hours they actually work. At the moment, people do not have an enforceable right to request flexible working arrangements. At the moment, under the Fair Work Act you can request a change to your working hours but, if the employer says no, there is nowhere for you to go—no appeal, no recourse, no prospect of improvement in your work/life balance. You are stuck with it.

These amendments would ensure that requests for flexible working arrangements are treated seriously. Employers would not be forced to agree to every request, but they must give them proper consideration. These amendments that the Australian Greens will be moving 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. Flexibility is a concept we hear about commonly from employers and employer organisations, but it does need to be a two-way street. That is what flexibility is. People need to have more control over the hours they work, the location they are working and the arrangement of those working hours.

The Australian Greens' amendments would give all employees an enforceable right to request arrangements that will deliver a better work-life balance. Of course, this must be balanced against legitimate operational needs of employers, and that is exactly what these amendments will do. They will provide a test that would make it easier for carers to obtain flexible working arrangements but would still allow any disputes to be resolved in Fair Work Australia by an independent umpire. It is important to note that these amendments are not radical or unprecedented, in fact. This proposal is actually quite a modest proposal by international standards and brings us into line with many other countries.

The United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany have been doing this for a number of years and their experience is illustrative. A review of flexible working arrangement laws in these countries 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. 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, interestingly, 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.

So 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 been willing or able to consider previously. An expanded right to request flexible working arrangements does not have to override management prerogative; it simply ensures that full and proper consideration is given and provides an enforceable right and oversight from Fair Work Australia.

I note that the 2012 Australian Work and Life Index report recommends that the right to request flexible working arrangements be widened and that workers be given protection from unreasonable refusal. The amendments that the Australian Greens will be moving will deliver on that recommendation and deliver a better work-life balance for Australian workers.