Australia is one of only two advanced capitalist countries in the world not to provide a government funded paid maternity leave scheme for women. The other is the United States. Only around a quarter of women workers in Australia have access to paid maternity leave and this is mostly because of trade union negotiated agreements at an enterprise level.
Some public employees are offered only two weeks paid maternity leave and many state based awards only offer around six weeks paid leave. While this may vary from state to state, it is appalling to see that a full time worker can legally be given as little as two weeks paid leave to have a baby and adapt to all the changes that this brings to someone’s life.
To compound the problem, Australia also has one of the highest rates of casualisation in the world, at over 27%. It is not surprising that the majority of casual workers are also women. That is, the majority of working women do not receive any maternity leave whatsoever! This also means many women workers never receive basic entitlements that full time workers receive such as sick pay, and holiday pay or job security.
The eleven and a half year reign of conservative Prime Minister, John Howard made sure the issue of paid maternity leave was off the political agenda. Howard argued that such a plan would be too expensive. Apart from putting dollars before the well being of women and working families, his arguments also stemmed from his belief that women should be subordinate to men in society and that working men should be responsible for supporting their partners – not the state. Howard saw the ‘nuclear family’ as the cornerstone of capitalist society.
In order to divert attention way from the issue Howard was forced to introduce some changes to family tax benefits. He passed these changes off as reforms but in reality they were counter reforms that disadvantaged many low paid women if they chose to return to work.
There is a great deal of hope amongst workers that the new Labor government of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard will treat working women much better. In fact in recent weeks Labor has put the issue of paid maternity leave back on their agenda. This comes as it was quietly dumped before last year’s national conference.
While Labor said they remained committed to parental leave (unpaid), its historically explicit support for publicly funded paid maternity leave was removed from its platform. But during the election campaign Labor were under some pressure from women’s groups to revive the issue.
They have now announced a ‘productivity commission’ inquiry into paid maternity leave to make recommendations as to what may be appropriate. As yet, there is no timeline for the end of this inquiry but it is not expected until next year at the earliest.
Labor has made it very clear that they will not implement anything that will be bad for business. They also want to ensure that those employers that do currently offer some paid maternity leave will not be encouraged to start relying on the government to take over the funding of these arrangements.
This leaves little confidence that there will be any serious attempt by Labor to implement a publicly funded paid maternity leave scheme in the short term. In fact this self proclaimed ‘fiscal conservative’ government will move to reduce public spending in the next period as they try to avoid the backlash from a world economic downturn.
The Socialist Party believes that all women should have the right to choose if and when they want to have children without worrying about how they will be economically affected. Women should also be able to choose if and when they return to work.
It is clear that the difference between Howard and Rudd is more of style rather than substance and we can not expect Labor to voluntarily give us anything. As with every advance in workers wages or conditions nothing will be handed over without a fight. Paid maternity leave will only be won by waging a united campaign that involves women’s groups, trade unions, community groups and progressive political parties.
It is only by also fighting for system change will we be able to ensure that these reforms are permanent and thus result in real choice and equality for working women.
By Socialist Party reporters