Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

ACTU and Labor retreat on paid maternity leave

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Australia has one of the worst rates of childcare provision in the OECD. Australia and the US are also the only two OECD nations without a nationally funded paid maternity leave scheme. Despite this the Labor Party has been quick to back track on implementing a scheme.

Currently the Rudd government is considering dumping or putting off its plan to introduce paid maternity leave despite promising to do so at the last election. Even Labor’s own Productivity Commission report recommended women should be paid $540 a week for 18 weeks’ leave, and fathers given two weeks’ leave at the same rate.

As per usual the ACTU have been quick to defend the government rather than defend the interests of their own members. Earlier this year ACTU President Sharan Burrow said “women have been waiting for paid maternity leave for 30 years and should not be put off for yet another year”. Now she is saying that “the body (ACTU) may accept a gradual introduction of the scheme because of the financial crisis”.

The ACTU had already backed down on its longstanding minimum demand for 26 weeks paid leave claiming it was unaffordable. With people like Burrow ‘leading’ the union movement is it any wonder we have been waiting more than 30 years!

Even right wing business groups like the Australian Industry Group (AIG) had previously agreed to a modest 14 week scheme. This would have been a small step forward for working parents although it would have only been a slight increase on the baby bonus.

Rather than fighting for women’s and worker’s rights the ACTU are in effect accepting that it should be ordinary people and not the bosses who pay the price for the financial crisis.

Unfortunately this is because the current ACTU leaders support the profit driven system. They have no alternative vision for how the world should be run and therefore just tail end the bosses. In essence the ACTU are defending an economic system that says it can’t “afford” to allow women, and parents to care for a newborn baby!

The reality is that the system can afford it and women can’t wait any longer. Currently less than one in three working women have access to paid maternity leave and they are mostly women who earn over $75,000 per year.

While childcare waiting lists are growing longer, especially for children under two, the cost of living continues to sky rocket. As it stands women are forced into casualised work, with few rights and little ability to plan their family and work life.

With the onset of the economic crisis we now see women worse off than ever. Much of the blame can be laid on the current union leaders who have refused to fight. If the government can afford massive handouts to big business – at the expense of working people – then we can afford a well overdue paid maternity leave scheme for women.

We need a union leadership that is prepared to fight to improve the lives of working women, not one that’s ready to sell out before the battle has begun. The union movement urgently needs to forge a campaign to improve childcare, reduce casualistion and fight for paid maternity leave to improve the working conditions for all workers.

By Kylie McGregor


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