Time to fight for paid maternity leave

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Australia is one of the only OECD countries without publicly funded paid maternity leave. The newly elected ALP government has fallen short of delivering real paid maternity leave as promised in the lead up to the election.

Instead it is conducting a ‘productivity commission inquiry’. Labor, despite its historical support for publicly funded paid maternity leave, removed paid leave from its platform last year.

Currently, only one in three Australian working women have access to paid maternity leave and they are mostly women on pay of $75,000 or more, or those working in government organisations. As over 75 per cent of women earn less than $42,000, the introduction of paid maternity leave is long overdue and will be welcome by the majority of women, who currently receive no leave at all.

The women who have been left out are typically those in casual, insecure, low-paid jobs, especially those in retail, hospitality and other service industries. Research by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) shows a majority of the 51 per cent of organisations that do not provide paid maternity leave were sectors that employed large numbers of women with only 8 per cent of women in retail and hospitality receiving any form of paid maternity leave.

Paid maternity leave is urgently needed by the majority of workforce, and an introduction of paid maternity leave would be a great advance. However the Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) has recently let down union members by announcing a back flip on their recent policy.

The ACTU is now claiming that its previous minimum demand for 26 weeks paid leave is “unaffordable”. The ACTU has joined forces with business groups like the Australian Industry Group in their calls for a government-funded scheme to be paid over a 12-14 week period at the rate of the minimum wage. This is currently only at $522.12 per week. The ACTU submission is a slap in the face for working women.

14 weeks leave is totally inadequate. Many child-care centres do not even offer childcare before a child is six months, while the period the World Health Organisation says babies should be exclusively breast-fed in the first six months. And of course, it’s recommended by the health profession that women cease full-time work prior to birth. Additionally many employers are not at all flexible in their arrangements for women to return to work after this time.

The current proposal is no real financial improvement. The ACTU calls for a government funded proposal of $7000 per mother and even less after tax. So, 14 weeks paid leave in effect is only a meagre increase in the current baby bonus payment. In fact, by the time it comes into effect in 2009 or later, and is subject to tax, it will hardly be a relief for the majority of low-income and working class families that the ALP have promised to look after!

Big business mouthpieces like Heather Ridout, from the Australian Industry Group (AIG) argue on the one hand that we need greater participation of women in the workforce, and on the other that business sponsored maternity leave is too costly. In reality as it stands, employers save millions by employing workers on a casual basis, the majority of whom are women.

As casuals women workers receive no holiday pay or sick pay, job security let alone paid maternity leave. It is also the sectors in which women are employed that are the lowest paid, such as the service sector. In reality women have actually been subsidising big business for too long.

There is also the rarely mentioned value of women’s domestic unpaid labour generally in our society. In the UK in 2004, even conservative surveys by major insurance companies estimated the value of unpaid domestic labour and childcare as 29,000 British Pounds annually. That’s around 739 billion Pounds per year, in the UK alone! It is questionable whether these economic factors will be considered in Rudd’s productivity commission inquiry!

It is unlikely that the Rudd government will do anything to support the advancement of women’s rights. We need the union movement to fight for a paid maternity leave system that supports working women and working class families, not one that sells them out before the battle has even begun. The proposed ‘paid maternity leave’ is not even a reform as is stands. This would be merely more tokenism from the ALP.

Australia lags well behind the rest of the world in supporting new mothers. Over 157 nations around the world have some kind of paid maternity leave provision. As a result Australia has one of the lowest levels of workforce participation for women between the ages of 25 and 44 and is ranked 23 out of 24 OCED nations. This combined with low pay, and the casualisation of the female workforce has contributed to a real backlash against the struggle for women’s equality.

If we want to encourage women into the workforce, if we want to support working women in their choice to have children, and if we want to ease pressure on working class families – a great majority of whom are struggling from week to week – we need to a comprehensive public system that works.

The Socialist Party stands for:

– A quality childcare system that is accessible, and free. Currently women who work are paying for the privilege. Women are left with very little in their pocket, after the costs of childcare which are often around 50% of daily income or more.

– Equal pay for equal work. Women today still earn considerably less than men. Currently, full-time female workers only earn 83.6 per cent of the male wage, the lowest proportion since 1998.

– Increase the minimum wage. For a living wage for all workers.
Real flexibility for women returning to work. For the right to return to work on a permanent part-time basis, the right to re-enter the work-force without discrimination.

– For the union movement, along with community groups, to urgently campaign for paid maternity and paternity leave, affordable childcare and against casualisation to improve the working conditions for all workers.

By SP reporters