"Paid parental leave and quality and affordable child care are the first two pillars of essential government support for working families. The third, and generally ignored pillar, is that of workplace flexibility - for both women and men."
- Member of the Legislative Council, Courtney Houssos
As trade union members, we are so proud of the achievements of our labour movement. Perhaps one of the most significant was the 8 hour day
– the understanding that a balance of work, leisure and rest were to be protected for all workers.
We all know that most work today does not end after 8 hours. There is no doubt that the nature of work is fundamentally changing for many workplaces. But we also now have the opportunity to make our workplaces more flexible to accommodate this.
Workplace flexibility is vital for mothers and fathers as they balance their family and work commitments. Any parent understands that children get sick, or have restless nights, or sometimes simply need their mum or dad at an inconvenient time. But workplace flexibility is important for more than just parents – it is important throughout our working lives: whether it’s further study, or parenting or caring commitments, or simply participating in your local community.
Every person who can work should be given that chance. Our economy needs more working people, and many people want more work. We need to find a way to meet these complementary needs by removing those things that act as barriers. Workplace flexibility is a key aspect of that support, especially for working families.
In government, Federal Labor proudly introduced paid parental leave and reforms to improve the quality and accessibility of childcare. Both of these work, in different ways, to remove barriers to work for parents and improve productivity and participation in the economy.
But too often paid parental leave and child care benefits are seen as two interchangeable policy items. In fact, they are not.
Paid parental leave affords parents the right to spend precious time with their newborns: bonding with their child, learning how to care for them, learning how to be a parent. Paid parental leave gives new mums and dads the essential time they need to become just that - the best mother and father they can be.
Then, quality and affordable child care allows parents, often mothers, to return to work - perhaps after several months, or a year, or several years. Quality and affordable child care allows the dignity of work for those who seek it, and also bestows education benefits and socialisation benefits to young children - especially those from disadvantaged circumstances.
These should be considered two levers of the same policy: a policy to support families and support mothers and fathers to be the best they can be, and to support parents in the contributions they seek to make both as mothers and fathers and as working men and women in our communities.
The efforts of the Federal Liberal Government to not only break its election commitments around paid parental leave, but also to cut to pieces Labor’s historic scheme, while trying to buy political support for this by promising more money towards child care is the latest in a long line of examples to perpetrate this false dichotomy.
Paid parental leave and quality and affordable child care are the first two pillars of essential government support for working families. The third, and generally ignored pillar, is that of workplace flexibility - for both women and men.
There are many aspects to workplace flexibility - a focus on outcomes rather than simply hours in the office; provisions for working from home either when required, or on a regular basis; a focus on shifting workplace culture when it comes to responsibilities outside the office - and time and time again studies show that these programs increase the productivity of relevant workers.
So workplace flexibility assists parents or carers or students as they balance work and study, and it increases workplace productivity - one of the key challenges for the Australian economy.
Indeed many of Australia’s largest companies have realized that giving flexibility to their workers also betters their bottom line. Telstra, ANZ, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Mercy Health, the Australian Stock Exchange, Westpac and Probuild Constructions are all trialling different ways to give their workers more flexible workplaces.
At the same time, we are seeing record numbers of women starting up small businesses. Of course this should be encouraged, but in many instances these ventures are a direct result of modern workplaces failing to provide the flexible working conditions many women seek. These people wish to participate in the workforce, they have a contribution to make, and as a modern society with a modern economy, we must encourage the full utilization of their contributions.
We know that government has a role in setting the standard of public debate, and we know that many businesses in Australia are crying out for the public sector to lead the way in innovative workplace reforms. In contrast to the Liberals and Nationals, the Labor Party is committed to engaging in this discussion with the interests of working people at heart.