Proposed Budget changes that stop women claiming paid parental leave (PPL) from their employer and from the government could seriously deter women from working in the public sector and entice them into the corporate world instead, says an employment and maternity leave academic.
The federal government introduced a universal government-funded PPL in January 2011 under Labor, which paid up to 18 weeks of PPL at the national minimum wage – currently $640 per week – immediately after the birth or adoption of a child.
Currently, women who work in the public sector normally get between 12 to 14 weeks paid parental leave (around 87 per cent of public sector employers offer this) and they are also legally entitled to claim up to $11,500 under the government’s universal PPL scheme.
But Treasurer Joe Hockey wants to stop new mums “double dipping” which will rip entitlements away from 80,000 women who currently receive an employer parental leave scheme, 60 per cent of whom work in the public sector.
Sydney University Professor of Employment Relations Work and Organisational Studies Professor Marian Baird said the measure would damage the image of the public sector as a family friendly employer.
“Interestingly, corporate Australia is probably providing better conditions in terms of flexibility and work and families. I think it will counter perceptions of the public sector as an employer of choice, although that has been shifting for some time,” Prof Baird said.
Many corporates already have generous maternity leave schemes and offer flexible working conditions such as part-time work and job-sharing.
A 2012 BRW article on Australia’s top 20 family-friendly places to work contained no government employers but was instead chock-full of corporates like Google Australia, analytics company SAS and software developer ThoughtWorks Australia.
Australia’s banks are also putting the government sector to shame.
ANZ offers 12 weeks paid maternity leave, unpaid leave up to two years, carer’s leave, part-time work and facilities for nursing mothers; Westpac gives their employees 13 weeks PPL, up to two years to return to work, part-time and job-sharing options and telecommuting.
NAB announced in March that it would give mothers, fathers and non-birth parents 12 weeks PPL at full pay or 24 weeks at half pay any time within 12 months of a child’s birth or adoption, in addition to offering part-time, flexi-time, job share or job split.
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Secretary Nadine Flood has accused the Abbott Government of being “obsessed with attacking its own workers”.
“The Prime Minister’s public servant bashing is deeply offensive to these working mums who have the same employer-provided parental leave as hundreds of thousands of women in large private sector companies,” Ms Flood said.
“In fact the Government’s own figures show that a majority of large private sector employers like the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and Cadburys offer at least an additional 12 weeks of paid leave to staff.
“It has cut 17,000 jobs, and is now attacking public sector workers rights and real wages, offering draconian new agreements, far worse than any major private sector employer has on the table.”
Professor Baird said she was concerned that if the changes to maternity leave went through they would increase pressure on women to return to work early and lead to more requests for part-time work and the ability to work more flexibility, as well as pushing up the demand for childcare.
She said she suspected that the government’s proposed changes were an “ambit claim” unlikely to get through the senate, with the proposal ultimately designed to be scaled back to apply only women working in the public sector, many of whom worked below APS6 and were clustered in administrative roles in health, education and social services. The State of the Service report shows women make up a high proportion of lower graded jobs. For example, they account for 66 per cent of people at APS 2 and 3 and 70 per cent at APS4 in the Australian Public Service.
Professor Baird anticipated that maternity leave would become a key battleground during public sector enterprise bargaining agreements, which are being negotiated by multiple departments and agencies in the wake of low ball pay offers and cuts to conditions.
“I think this is something that people will start to fight for because it’s a major shift in policy with a single gender effect. It’s really targeting a particular group of workers,” Prof Baird said.
The income distribution of women claiming under both PPL schemes is hard, if not impossible, to come by.
Government News asked the Australian Public Service Commission for these figures and was told that the Commission did not keep this information and each department or agency should be approached individually for maternity leave statistics, a Herculean task given there are 18 federal government departments and 199 government agencies, ranging from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
But Treasurer Joe Hockey seems confident it is only relatively well off public sector mums that will be hit by the proposals.
In a recent interview with Laurie Oakes the veteran journalist asked Mr Hockey who would be likely to be benefitting from both schemes. The treasurer answered: “in many cases it’s mostly people who go on parental leave that earn more than $90,000 a year.”
Prof Baird denied that women had been “double dipping” and said the accusations were offensive. The Labor government’s universal PPL scheme had the Productivity Commission’s backing and was designed to be combined with employer’s PPL to extend maternity leave to the World Health Organisation’s recommended 26 weeks to better maintain breastfeeding and bonding.
A phase 3 evaluation report on the current PPL, published in March, found that the scheme had meant fewer mothers returning to work early before 18 weeks but that these women were more likely to end up returning to work once their babies were 12 months old.
The stated aims of the government’s PPL were to enable working mothers to spend longer at home with their newborn children, to make women’s participation in the workforce easier, encourage gender equality and improve work-life balance for Australian families something the current Budget proposals appear to contradict.
They are a far cry from Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s original signature paid parental leave policy would have provided mothers with 26 weeks parental leave pay at an employee’s replacement wage, originally to be given to those earning up to $150,00 but later scaled back to $100,000 and capped at $50,000 for six months.
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