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A national conversation on investing in care

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Carers NSW 2013 Biennial Conference: Caring, Working, Living
Novotel Sydney Brighton Beach

14 March 2013


Thank you to Carers NSW for inviting me to address your biennial conference, it is really wonderful to be a part of this event.

Can I please firstly acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on and I would like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Can I also acknowledge all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the room. Caring is such a significant issue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities and we know that there are much higher rates of unpaid care for children and for people with disability, chronic illness or frailty amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than non-Indigenous Australians. So I want to particularly acknowledge all the caring work done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.


In January of this year I was very pleased to launch a series of reports titled Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care. These reports were the culmination of over 12 months of work done by the Commission, in conjunction with the Social Policy Research Centre, at UNSW, led by Bettina Cass and NSW Carers was also a project advisor on the project.

Today I want to spend some time talking about the research, what came out of it and what will be important for setting the agenda for unpaid caring going into the future. 

The reason we undertook this research stems from some previous research the Commission did in 2009, which examined the gender gap in retirement savings. The 2009 report, called,Accumulating poverty? Women’s experiences of inequality over the lifecycle looked at the experiences of gender inequality over the lifecycle that culminate in a gender gap in retirement incomes and savings and higher rates of poverty and financial hardship for women in older age. 

The 2009 report found that superannuation balances and payouts for women are approximately half of those of men and as a result, women are more likely to be solely reliant on the Age Pension in retirement, leaving them vulnerable to poverty. The gender gap in retirement incomes is the result of women moving in and out of the paid workforce due to caring responsibilities and the inequalities in earnings, which impact on women’s capacity to accumulate an adequate level of retirement savings. 

The report identified the importance of recognising and rewarding unpaid caring work in the retirement income system, as a means of addressing the gender gap in retirement income and savings. 

So in 2012, the Commission embarked on a research project to look at models to value unpaid caring work. The research project aimed to:

  • examine the nature of unpaid caring work in Australia and the barriers it creates for women’s equal participation in the workforce;
  • identify and analyse the different models and measures of valuing unpaid work and assess the possible impact of such measures on the gender gap in retirement savings; and
  • identify and assesses the contemporary mechanisms in the workplace that can support caring work.

Caring is valuable, necessary work undertaken by paid care workers and unpaid carers and it is crucial to the social and economic fabric.

At some point in our lives we will all be involved in a care relationship - whether it is as a recipient of care, or as someone who is doing the caring - and this is likely to increase as socio-demographics shift towards Australia having a larger ageing population.

The recognition of care provision, both paid and unpaid, reflects the value placed on our shared humanity and the periods throughout our lives in which we all experience a need for support.

Unpaid carers comprise two groups – parents and carers:

parents (who include biological, step, adoptive, or foster parents, and grandparents or guardians with caring responsibilities for a dependent child); and

carers (who include people caring for a family member or friend with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to older age).

Valuing the work of unpaid carers (parents and carers) requires social and economic recognition of the importance of the relationships they build and foster, the assistance they provide to the people for whom they care, and the manifold contributions that they make to the whole community and economy.

Caring relationships and roles are diverse and each care situation is unique and may change across the lifecourse. So when we are thinking of valuing unpaid carers we need to pay attention to the full spectrum and diversity of unpaid caring work in our society and accord equal recognition and worth to all unpaid carers.

At the launch, I shared some of my own experiences of having to care for my mother who passed away nine years ago. Like many, she died after a long illness - a period of highs and lows - in and out of remission, ultimately deciding that she wanted no further active treatment, choosing to die on her own terms.

I remember those times clearly - the emotional rollercoaster, the choices my sisters and I wrestled with - trying to manage work, our young families, supporting dad and caring for my dying mum. This is a dilemma that many people in Australia face every day.

Caring in these circumstances is unpredictable. There is no known end date. The requirement for care ebbs and flows. It is not only difficult for those who care, but for their employers - employers who wonder when their employee will be free of their caring role, when their employee will once again be ready to devote their time and energy to work.

Sometimes it becomes just too hard and for this reason, many carers choose to leave paid work entirely. 

I was lucky. I worked for a sympathetic employer – one who understood that, on occasion, care takes precedence over work. I was given as much time as I needed to be with my mother. 

But for many this option is not available.

Our communities are full of people who are caring - for children, grand-children, parents, in-laws, for others in our community with disability, chronic illness or old age. And because the vast majority receive no remuneration, they are what we refer to as ‘unpaid carers’.

In fact there are 5.5 million unpaid carers in Australia today – a quarter of the population. Over 4 million of them are in some form of paid work.

And it’s women who are more likely than men to be carers – women who have care responsibilities of greater intensity.

In the 15-64 years age group 72.5 per cent of primary carers are women.[1] Ninety-two per cent of primary carers for children with disability and 70 per cent of primary carers for parents are women.[2]

Interestingly, the one area where men care equally with women is in later life. Men comprise around half (48 per cent) the primary carers for partners.[3] I saw that with my own parents.

So what is the problem?

In a nutshell, the problem is that unpaid caring work largely goes unrecognised and unrewarded – its invisible.

Clearly it is not invisible to the people who receive it – caring is the ultimate expression of our humanity.

No, here I'm talking about the fact that it’s not economically valued. I’m talking about the fact that the superannuation, taxation and employment systems in Australia financially disadvantage people who care.

It’s time we considered the impost of care on the people who provide it.

Unpaid carers have significantly lower rates of workforce participation and are more likely to work in part-time and casual jobs. Sixty-six per cent of employed women with children aged under six years worked part-time compared to just seven per cent of employed men with children of the same age.[4] Less than 23 per cent of female primary carers of people with disability, illness or frailty participate in full-time employment at any point across all age groups, compared with 52 per cent of men.[5]

Unpaid caring work is a large contributor to the gender gap in retirement incomes, whereby average superannuation payouts for women are just over half those of men (57 per cent).[6]

The report we produced comes in two volumes. Volume 1 outlines the main findings of the research, while volume 2 contains seven technical papers on specific aspects of the issues of unpaid care.

Of course, for those of you who prefer the short version, we have also produced a Community Guide that summarises the issues and options for reform. 

We have also produced a Toolkit for workplaces. 

Our report suggests 11 options for policy reform, not hard recommendations but options drawn from research and analysis of a range of mechanisms and models used to value unpaid caring work in Australia and another 24 countries around the world. The report advocates evidence-based options for reform including:

  • strengthening and further developing legislation,
  • flexible work arrangements,
  • income support,
  • leave arrangements,
  • resourcing of services,
  • workplace initiatives to evolve workplace culture; and
  • the retirement incomes and savings system.

There is no one policy solution but rather a range of reforms in diverse areas. Let me spend a couple of minutes talking about the options for reform.

Legislative Reform

Carers have the lowest collective wellbeing of any group in Australian society. The introduction of the federal Carer Recognition Act in 2010 was a first step to formally recognising the value of care, but it does not confer any rights on those who care. The equivalent Act in the UK enables carers to receive an assessment of their carer needs, encouraging local authorities to support them by providing appropriate services. Sweden also has a system of assessing carers needs and referring them to appropriate services.

One option for reform would be to follow the UK model. This could be done in Australia through the introduction of a ‘carer’s card’, for use with government agencies, health professionals or other service providers, and to access concessions or discounts.

Flexible Work Arrangements

In Australia, the right to request a flexible work arrangement is included in the National Employment Standards, but it is limited to children under school age and those with a disability up to the age of 18. We should take the lead from the UK, Sweden and New Zealand, where this right has been extended to caring for adult family members and children of all ages.

This is why I was so encouraged recently to see the announcements made by Minister Shorten that the government will be seeking to amend the National Employment Standards to extend the scope of the right to request flexible working arrangements to cover other kinds of unpaid care including, employees caring for children of all ages, older people, or for a person with a serious long-term illness or disability.

Carer leave

Carer leave and leave for other family responsibilities aims to improve the capacity of parents and carers to undertake their caring and labour market responsibilities. In so doing, it can improve the labour market attachment of parents and carers and reduce the likelihood that parents and carers are forced to drop out of the labour market.

There would be value in introducing such leave, separate from personal leave, specifically for carer responsibilities only, that is available to all employees. Internationally, several countries, such as Poland and Norway provide longer than 10 days paid carer’s leave. Belgium has the longest period of paid carer’s leave. In Belgium, all employees are entitled to leave work for up to a year and receive a state-funded flat rate payment while on leave.


We must also accommodate palliative care. Recently, I attended the funeral of a young mother whose husband had been forced to leave work to care for her. He is now facing the prospect of re-entering the labour market at a time of great loss. Incorporating an unpaid employment break of 12 months across the lifecourse would assist.

It is also important to consider extending the definition of caring responsibilities in carer’s leave to include kinship relationships, which is particularly important for recognising the unpaid caring work done by extended family members in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and in migrant and refugee communities.



Despite problems associated with access, flexibility, appropriateness and affordability, care services are essential to provide parents and carers with crucial support.

However, working conditions within the paid care sector are characterised by part-time and casual positions, shift work, low wages and little or no vocational training. Women are predominately employed in this sector and this exposes them to an increased risk of poverty over their life course.

Reforms within the aged, health and early childhood education and care sectors need to aim to enhance and protect the employment conditions and pay of paid care workers in order to supply high quality support. The equal pay case for community sector workers is a step forward.

Retirement incomes and savings

The current system of retirement income and savings, including the age pension and superannuation is tied to paid work.

But many women (and some men) spend periods outside of the paid workforce providing care for children and people with disability, long term illness or frailty due to old age.


Yet the superannuation system has no mechanism for recognising contributions made outside of the paid workforce during the working life. As a result, any period outside of paid work has a direct impact on income in old age.

The system of compulsory superannuation, which is tied to paid work, creates significant inequalities in the retirement incomes of those who provide care during their lives and those who do not.


Reforming the system to address this inequity might include a system of ‘carer credits’ - direct credits paid to the superannuation accounts of individuals with unpaid caring responsibilities that would be paid annually at the end of the tax year by government. This is what is happening in a number of other countries including the UK.

We should also consider a supplement to the age pension for people who have already made substantial contributions to unpaid care over their lifetime. These are the older women who will now live in poverty because they chose to care.

Such initiatives are already being implemented in other countries, however, in order to see how they might apply in Australia, there is a need for strong economic modelling. To this end we have suggested that the Productivity Commission, or a similar independent body conduct an inquiry on the proposed options for reform for valuing unpaid caring work.

Early childhood education and care

Unlike some other countries that have a legal right to public early childhood education and services, such as Denmark and Norway, Australia has no formal right to an early childhood and care place.


In Australia parents experience a number of difficulties accessing early childhood education and care. In 2005 the main reason for not accessing or organising additional early childhood education and care services was due to lack of available places for around a third of parents and, for around 16 per cent cost was the main barrier. 

In addition, in 2009 over half the couple households, and just over 60 per cent of lone-parent households, experienced difficulties with the availability of early childhood education and care. 

The difficulties associated with attempting to combine employment and care for parents can be exacerbated by a lack of high quality, accessible and affordable services, which are flexible and designed to meet the needs of working parents, particularly those working in non-standard hours and in non-metropolitan areas.

We need the Productivity Commission to conduct a whole of system review into the current provision, costs, taxation and financing of quality early childhood education and care services, with a view to making it accessible, flexible and affordable. This is a concern I hear repeatedly, Australia-wide.

Parental Leave and Shared Care

But one of the biggest hurdles in the unpaid caring debate in Australia is the stigma associated with caring itself. And it can be addressed.

We need to address the gender role stereotypes and social norms that have become associated with unpaid caring and workforce participation. We need to challenge the ‘ideal worker’ model of a person (usually a man) who is unencumbered by caring responsibilities. We need to create a new ‘normal’ where women and men equally share the responsibility for unpaid care.


This can be achieved by encouraging men to be involved in caring right from the start.

The paid parental leave system could offer an incentive system whereby, if a couple can prove they have shared their PPL equally, they will receive an additional government-funded four weeks of paid leave to be shared equally. Alternatively, the Government could offer two weeks additional leave for either partner once the entire dad/supporting partner quota has been taken.

And we have made a range of other suggestions to get this discussion going.

As I have been advocating for the options for reform in this report to be taken up, some people have commented that “Your family is your responsibility”.

While this is the case, unpaid care is not a purely individual issue. Unpaid caring work is vital to the sustainability of the social fabric that underpins our strong and inclusive democracy. And this benefits each and every one of us. After all, eventually, every one of us is likely to be a carer or be cared for.


To achieve real change in the valuing of unpaid caring work, it will be necessary to undertake a combination of reforms. This report provides a strong evidence base for considering what reform options could be undertaken to create a social and economic policy framework that facilitates genuine choices for men and women to combine unpaid care and paid work.

The Toolkit

Finally, I mentioned the Report is complemented by a toolkit for workplaces, entitled, Supporting Carers in the Workplace: A Toolkit

The Toolkit provides practical suggestions and examples of different kinds of workplace mechanisms to support carers in organisations and workplaces of all sizes and types. 

Examples have been drawn from a range of different countries and from Australian organisations. They include initiatives such as developing integrated carer strategies, different styles of flexible working arrangements, reduced work hours, changes in work location, financial assistance, referral to services and direct services provision to support employed carers. Many innovative strategies are highlighted.

Let me share with you some of the examples that stood out for us:

  • A financial services organisation in the US surveyed its employees to identify the number and types of carers within the company, audited its care support policies, and held focus groups with carers to elicit their concerns. It also engaged a specialist consultancy firm to apply a ‘care lens’ when developing policies and processes, including market research and measuring tools.
  • A pharmaceutical company in France introduced a ‘credit-hours’ scheme which provides two hours paid leave per month for carers.
  • An insurance organisation in Germany developed a ‘Profession and Care Service’ initiative which comprises four types of services for carers including information, consultation, intermediation, and training.
  • A financial company in Australia provides parental leave of up to 104 weeks parental leave (13 weeks paid and the remainder as unpaid) and pays up to 39 weeks superannuation contributions on the unpaid parental leave portion. It also provides grandparental leave of up to 52 weeks to be the primary care giver of a grandchild, which can be taken flexibly. The company has also developed toolkits which provide information on the company’s policies and available services in the community including a Working Parents Toolkit, an Eldercare Kit and a Flex-E Toolkit.
  • A pharmaceutical company in the Netherlands provide five extra paid carer’s leave days per year for specific situations. It also provides a savings plan to finance leaves of absence in the future. Carers can buy extra leave hours, up to 37.5 hours per year.

In launching the reports, I didn’t want to just launch a report, I wanted to launch a national conversation about unpaid care - a conversation that will attribute recognition where its deserved, namely to acknowledge the work of those who care for children, those who care for people with disability, those who care for people who are chronically ill, those who care for older people.

We need to have a conversation in which government, community, employers, employees and unions will have the opportunity to think about bold and innovative ideas for reforming the system - to ensure that those who undertake the valuable work of caring do not live in poverty as a result.

So can I leave you with this thought - Now is the time for bold and innovative thinking, thoughtful analysis and collective commitment, so that in the near future, no woman – no-one - will retire in poverty because they chose to care.

In addition to changing the laws and policies each of us can also take action in our own lives. I want to invite all of you here today to take the time to personally recognise an unpaid carer for the caring work they do – this may be someone in your family or your workplace, it might be your next door neighbour or the grandmother caring for her grandchild in the park.

Unpaid carers inspire me every day. As a mother I met recently in Perth said about caring for her disabled child – “I may not have chosen this path but I walk it with love and pride”.

Whatever action you take, no matter how big or how small, will help to send a very clear message – it is time we in Australia started to talk about what we are going to do to make sure unpaid carers are properly recognised and valued.

Thank you.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia, Catalogue no. 4436.0 (2012), p 21, Table 8. At
(viewed 14 September 2012).
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia, Catalogue no. 4436.0 (2012), p 5.
[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia, Catalogue no. 4436.0 (2012), p 5.
[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Employment conditions’, Gender Indicators, Australia, Jul 2012,Catalogue, no. 4125.0 (2012). At 23 August 2012).
[5] Generated from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Caring(2009).
[6] R Clare, Developments in the level and distribution of retirement savings (2011), p 10.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner