Families the losers in IR shake-up

The years of work by the union movement to reform workplaces so they meet the needs of today`s families will be wiped out if the Howard government has its way and imposes reduced protections in its new workplace laws.

Experts are warning that the good advances won in the ACTU’s landmark Work and Family Test Case will be short lived if the Howard government gets away with the proposed IR changes.

Professor Barbara Pocock says the new federal IR changes hang like a black cloud over the advances won in the Commission.

‘It is hard to overestimate the assault that the Federal government’s IR plan is for workers with caring responsibilities. It is a big step backwards on the work/family front,’ she said.

‘It reveals the spoken commitments to work and family by John Howard and his government as empty rhetoric. Their changes will make it harder for workers to control their time.’

Reports by the federal government’s own agencies have provided evidence that a move away from awards towards a system based on individual contracts is likely to lead to more family-hostile environments.

Both the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and the Employment Advocate have published analyses that reveal a trend of inferior parental leave and longer hours in individual contracts.

This comes as no surprise to Barbara Pocock, who believes the government’s proposed changes will not only prove harmful to employees and their families but detrimental to employers and the wider economy.

‘The shift to individual bargaining will be a disaster for carers, especially women. The minimum award conditions are also a skeleton, not the [comprehensive] support that employees need,’ she said.

‘It is also taking us down the road to an unsustainable labour market, privately experienced by carers and the aged but also by employers. The labour market will tighten up. And not all employers are bastards – there are those who don’t want skeletal conditions, who need a stable workforce with long-term workers. That requires good conditions, but these better employers will be forced in to a downward spiral by bad employers.’

Individual contracts are a disaster for families
A recent report by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations found that of all individual contracts:

  • only 8% provide paid maternity leave
  • only 5% provide paid paternity leave.

Working parents not only have less access to family leave if they are on individual contracts, they also have less time for family life because they are working longer hours. Research by the federal government’s Employment Advocate found that around one in three people on individual contracts are working more hours than they did two years prior.

Families are also under more financial pressure if they are paid by individual contracts. Government data shows that:

  • Penalty rates were lost in more than half (54%) of individual contracts
  • Annual leave was lost in more than one in three (34%) individual contracts and
  • Sick leave was traded away in more than one in four (28%) individual contracts.

Workers who care should be protected

Union initiatives to improve the work and family imbalance have tried to resolve the inevitable conflict that arises when a worker is simultaneously expected to be available to their employer and to their family, says the ACTU’s Cath Bowtell.

‘We have identified predictable transitions during a person’s life that happen when a worker assumes responsibility for the care of a dependent.

‘There are events during a person’s life that trigger a change in their work status – the birth of a child, the return to work after the birth of a child, working while responsible for the care of infants and toddlers, raising young children and dealing with work demands while responsible for the ongoing care of dependents.

‘At each transition there is a risk of losing your job, or loss of job quality or risk of significant stress. Our initiatives are designed to minimise those risks.’

Gutting the Commission kills off source of improvements
Federal government plans to marginalise the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will have serious consequences for improving family-friendly conditions for Australian employees.

In Australia, workplace improvements that reconcile work and family roles have been developed, in the main, through test cases in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. This has resulted in:

  • Maternity leave (1979)
  • Adoption leave (1984)
  • Parental leave (1990)
  • Carers leave (1994/5) and
  • A right to refuse unreasonable overtime on grounds of family responsibilities (2003).

The major employer groups and the Coalition have opposed each of these improvements.
In addition to the above, NSW public sector nurses have achieved:

  • paid maternity leave – originally 9 weeks, then the recent increase to 14 weeks paid maternity/adoption leave.
  • one week paid parental leave for fathers/same-sex partners.
  • FACS leave at a superior level to federal test case standard.

In the private sector, the NSWNA always claims paid maternity leave – working case by case to extend this benefit in bargaining.