Finally some relief for working parents
When I look back, I remember the years my four children were young as “The Dark Ages”.
Not because they were terrible, in fact they were incredibly rewarding, but because life seemed to dissolve into a blur of shift work (my partner was then working as a chef), dropping kids off at kinder, school or childcare, and trying my hardest to be everything to everyone, a good mum at home and an effective nurse at work.
I doubt we were the only couple to pop open a bottle of champagne the day our youngest started school.
That’s why I’m excited at news that the Federal Government is considering changes to the law to strengthen the right of women to request part-time work when they return from maternity leave.
If the Government gives these laws real teeth – including a right of appeal that is accessible to ordinary workers – then they could make a long-overdue cultural change.
Business groups will no doubt kick up a fuss about this, as impractical and a threat to economic growth.
But this is not just an economic issue, it is a social issue. The idea that the relationship between employer and employee happens in a vacuum is wrong.
Many workers spend much of their time and mental energy trying to balance the demands of work and caring. This is particularly the case for mothers in paid work. The old debate that sees working mothers as “Superwomen” or “trying to have it all” is as dated as flared trousers and disco.
These days the majority of mums are back in paid work before their youngest child starts school. They are not trying to “have it all”, they are doing what they need to do to put food on the table and pay the mortgage.
The idea that all workers are men, with an adoring wife in the background taking care of the kids and the household chores, was not even true in the 1950s and is definitely not true now. The average household may be juggling two, or even three jobs, and unpredictable working hours and pay. Organising school pick-ups, child care, and caring for sick children is an ever-changing puzzle.
These problems are often exacerbated by insecure forms of work, where hours can differ dramatically from week-to-week, and where workers have no annual leave or sick leave. A change of shift times or rosters be great for employers, but it may cause a domino effect that knocks over the carefully worked out arrangements a family uses to get through the week.
Some employees have understanding bosses and are able to negotiate flexible arrangements already. That’s great, but the right to ask for part-time work needs to be given teeth.
At the moment workers technically have a right to ask for part-time work, but if their employer says no, they have no right of appeal to an independent arbiter. That means that employers can simply refuse by saying, ”No, we don’t do part-time work”.
The union movement wants employers to have an obligation to seriously consider reasonable requests for part-time work from workers with caring responsibilities.
We understand that not all businesses, in particular small businesses, can offer part-time work, but many can and should.
I have not seen the full details of what the Government is proposing, but without a genuine right of appeal, it will not make any difference for the women who really need it.
I hear anecdotal evidence of employers who treat workers’ family responsibilities or pregnancies with thinly-veiled contempt.
For example, a pregnant cashier was having trouble standing all day so her employer cut her hours because she was, they said, ill-equipped to handle the demands of the job. Why not just give her a chair and let her sit down?
Although I support any attempt to make it easier for mothers returning from maternity leave, these are not the people who are juggling work and caring responsibilities. There are people caring for adults with a disability, and those looking after frail, elderly parents.
There are, of course, men who do this, but the majority of caring work is still being done by women.
If we are serious about equal pay and equal work opportunities for women – and about making the best use of their talents – we need a cultural change that balances work and caring responsibilities.
We cannot expect women to do the majority of caring work ( work that saves governments billions each year) and at the same time expect them to do paid work as if they had no responsibilities outside the job.
Women in their 50s are already being referred to as the “sandwich generation”. They are in paid work, but are still looking after teenage children, while having to take responsibility for their own ageing parents.
As our society ages, these caring responsibilities will increase, while the working age population decreases. It is important that we start thinking now about what arrangements will best serve society in the future.
There is no one answer to how we do this. For some jobs part-time work may be the answer, for others using technology to work from home.
What is important is that we recognise that people should not be forced to make an unnecessary choice between work and their caring responsibilities.
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