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Opinion Pieces - Maternity scheme is overdue (2008)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

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Maternity scheme is overdue

Elizabeth Broderick, Sharan Burrow and Heather Ridout.

Publication: The Age (8 April 2008)

IT IS NOT that often that the Australian Industry Group, the ACTU and the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner agree on something, but we all support the need for a national, government-funded scheme of paid maternity leave.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has long-advocated paid maternity leave, and in 2002 it undertook significant consultation, research and economic modelling on the issue. The commission proposed a basic minimum — a national scheme of 14 weeks paid at the federal minimum wage.

The ACTU has also been a strong advocate of paid maternity leave, and the Australian Industry Group supports an appropriate period of publicly funded paid maternity leave consistent with community and international standards and at the level of the federal minimum wage. We each have no doubt about the need for a national scheme and the benefits that it would bring to business, to employees and to the broader economy and society — and, perhaps most importantly, our children. It would also keep women linked to the workforce.

For business, there is a strong incentive. There is no doubt that paid maternity leave increases the likelihood of new mothers returning to work. Also, as figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month showed, two-thirds of those not in the labour force who want to work are women, most of whom are mothers. As a nation our continuing economic prosperity can be assured only by retaining the productivity of this group. Paid maternity leave, as employers such as Westpac and General Motors Holden know, is an essential part of holding on to staff and avoiding the high costs of recruitment and replacement. Since introducing paid maternity leave schemes, these organisations have had return-to-work rates nudging 90%.

For workers, a national paid maternity leave scheme is a priority to compensate women workers for the income they lose when they give birth. At present, two-thirds of women have no access to this workplace entitlement, and it is low-paid women in industries such as retail and hospitality who are most likely to miss out, yet they are most likely to be in need of it.

Paid maternity leave is not about being nice to working women, it is about addressing the inequality experienced by women workers relative to men as a result of childbirth. Nor is it a question of the baby bonus versus paid maternity leave: Paid maternity leave is not a bonus, it is about a right to paid leave for working mothers recovering from childbirth to help establish breastfeeding and for all-important bonding to occur. Resolving this inequality should be the key objective of any paid maternity leave scheme.

We also know that for male workers paid maternity leave will ensure that they do not face becoming the sole breadwinner while dealing with the challenges that new fatherhood brings.

But, most importantly, we know that paid maternity leave will mean better care for our children. The health and welfare of mothers and their babies is absolutely paramount — women need time to recover from childbirth, adjust to motherhood and establish breastfeeding, which is one of the most important contributions to infant health and development. Our children's health, wellbeing and futures are at stake.

Employers are increasingly leading the way. Companies such as Myer and Aldi are now introducing their own schemes. However, while the business case for paid maternity leave is strong, employer-funded schemes are not viable options for every type and size of business. The beauty of a government-funded model is that it would allay the concerns of small and medium-sized businesses, which, understandably, fear the financial and regulatory burden of an employer-funded scheme. Additional benefit could be provided at the enterprise level. Ultimately a minimum government-funded scheme would also ensure that this basic human right is not denied to those workers who are unable to negotiate such a benefit with their employers.

Australia has been repeatedly criticised by international human and labour rights groups for not providing this benefit. A scheme of 14 weeks' paid maternity leave is the minimum international standard outlined by the International Labour Organisation's Maternity Leave Protection Convention, 2000 (No 183). Many countries now provide much more. Yet Australia remains one of only two Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries that do not provide any form of paid leave for mothers, the other being the US. Paid maternity leave has been on the public policy agenda for more than three decades and its realisation is well overdue. The struggle for a universal scheme can only be described as a protracted labour, and now is the right time to induce.

We know that we must get this right. As the Productivity Commission inquiry gets under way, we are confident that we will be able to join forces to devise the high-quality scheme we deserve. It's right for business, for workers, and for our children.

Elizabeth Broderick is federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Sharan Burrow is president of the ACTU and Heather Ridout is chief executive of the Australian Industry Group.