Skip to main content

It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family (2007)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Click here to return to the Articles and Opinion Pieces Index

It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family (9 March 2007)


The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s two years of research, investigation and discussion with Australian families, employers and community organisations has told us that

Australians don’t have enough time – specifically, enough time to spend with and care for their families.

The need for care is universal – we will all need care and support at some point in our lives and most of us will also provide care to others.

It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family proposes a new framework to support men and women as workers and carers across the life cycle.

Existing legal protections for workers with family responsibilities are limited, and HREOC believes that a new specialised Act is the best way of improving legal protection for workers with family and carer responsibilities.

The paper does not put forward a law that is already fully developed, as we believe this legislation must be drafted in consultation with key stakeholders – particularly employers and the community. It must be an Act that works for business as well as families.

However, the proposed Family Responsibilities and Carers’ Rights Act would contain a number of key features.

The Act should include a right for workers to request flexible work arrangements to meet family or carer responsibilities, and to have their request reasonably considered. The right should be available to all men and women workers.

While HREOC acknowledges that the ‘right to request’ will impose some additional obligations on employers, it is important to emphasise the limited nature of this new entitlement. This law aims to ensure there are no obligations on an employer who is unable to meet the request due to genuine operational reasons beyond the duty to reasonably consider the request.

HREOC believes this law is a key part of helping working Australians to strike a better balance between paid work and family life.

It is law which will reduce risks for business by clarifying their obligations to their employees with family responsibilities. It will offer guidance for business on how to deal with employees requesting flexibility at work. And it will also help employees know how to ask for that flexibility.

HREOC envisages that the ‘right to request’ would operate along similar lines to the UK’s right to request legislation, enshrined in their Employment Rights Act 1996 and amendments due to come into effect in April this year.

The UK legislation provides for parents with children under the age of six, or parents of disabled children under 18, the right to apply to work flexibly and from next month extends the right to request flexible working conditions to carers of adults.

It is far from revolutionary. The UK experience of these laws has been very positive, both for employers and employees.

Prior to introduction of the Act in the UK, several studies were undertaken into the potential effects on employers of the new law.  

Learning from the UK experience, HREOC recommends that consideration of such a law in Australia be the subject of an extensive consultation with employers and other stakeholders. It must be developed with the genuine concerns of business in mind.

Studies showed that flexible working had a positive impact upon employee commitment and motivation with more than half reporting positive impacts on staff turnover. Nearly half found the policies had a positive effect upon recruitment, and half cited improvements in productivity.

Since the Act took effect, over 80 per cent of employee requests for flexible working have been either fully or partially accepted by employers.

This is hardly the stuff of heavy-handed regulation. Providing employers and employees with tools for negotiating these issues in the workplace can only assist in finding solutions that best meet the needs of their business. 

People are finding their working lives overlap at various points with not only caring for children, but also spouses or older relatives at the other end of the life cycle.

Australia must have a social vision and appropriate legal support to facilitate these transitions without harsh penalties. Legal support is just one element among a raft of measures that are also required to make our homes and workplaces more family-friendly.

Achieving a balance between paid work and family responsibilities is not only the barbeque stopper of this century. It is without doubt the greatest challenge being faced by Australian families every day.

In 2007, it’s about time for a new approach.

The Hon John von Doussa QC

President, Acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission