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It's About Time - Executive Summary

It's About Time

Executive Summary

Chatper 1: Background

Chapter 2: It's about time

Chapter 3: Legal protection for workers with family and carer responsibilities

Chapter 4: Striking the balance in the workplace

Chapter 5: Striking the balance int he family

Chapter 6: Government support: Welfare and tax

Chapter 7: Government support: early childhood and care

Chapter 8: Government support: care for adults and support for carers

Chapter 9: Other issues

Chapter 10: Conclusion

Chapter 1: Background

Striking the balance between paid work and family in Australia has become more than a "BBQ stopper" - it is the topic of the 21st Century for families, employers and governments.

To examine the way in which Australian men and women balance their paid work and family and carer responsibilities, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) released the discussion paper Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family in June 2005. This paper built on previous Commission work on sex discrimination and gender equality in employment.

The paper aimed to broaden the "work and family debate" to better include men's role in family life; to include forms of care other than child care (such as elder care and care for people with disability); and to highlight the relationship between paid work and unpaid work.

It stirred up considerable public debate and generated significant media interest in this topic.

One hundred and eighty one submissions were received in response to the Striking the Balance discussion paper. In addition, 44 consultations and focus groups were held around Australia with employers, employer groups, employees, unions, men's and women's community groups, parents, carers and children.

This final paper, It's about Time: Women, men, work and family, outlines a new approach to balancing paid work and family/carer responsibilities in Australia. Underpinned by human rights principles, this new approach proposes a series of changes to legislation, workplace policy and practice and government policies and programs.

Chapter 2: It's about time

At the heart of efforts to "strike the balance" between paid work and family responsibilities is the issue of time. Despite a decade or more of economic growth and prosperity many Australians are not living the lives they want and feel pressured, stressed and overly constrained in the choices they can make, particularly at key points in their lives. Over the duration of this project, the Australian community has repeatedly told HREOC about time pressures, conflicting demands on time and a desire for more time to enjoy family and friends.

Successfully managing time is not only a result of individual choices; it is also a consequence of the support that exists within families and communities, government policy, workplace policies and practices and social attitudes. External support for families juggling paid work and care is patchy at best and counter productive at worst.

An important starting point to address this challenge is to develop a paid work and family/carer responsibilities framework which:

  • allows for changes in caring needs and responsibilities across the life cycle;
  • addresses equality between men and women; and
  • reflects a "shared work - valued care" approach.

Increased paid work opportunities for women in the past 20 years have not produced a corresponding change in the division of unpaid responsibilities between men and women. Women with family/carer responsibilities carry a disproportionate share of unpaid work, including child care, elder care and associated housework, while men in full time paid work lack access to family life. For both men and women the imbalance of paid work and family/carer responsibilities has a direct impact on their life outcomes, including their social and economic status, participation in public life, health and emotional wellbeing.

A guiding principle for approaching paid work and care issues, across the life cycle and supporting equality between men and women, is what has been described as a "shared work - valued care" approach. This means sharing unpaid and paid work better across the labour market and the community as well as between individual men and women. It means sharing the work of caring between families, the community and public institutions. It requires governments to take a primary role in sharing the costs of care through the provision of accessible, affordable and high quality care and support services for both children and adults who need them. It also means valuing the caring work of employees, ensuring quality employment for those who provide care and sharing the responsibility for care between individuals and quality service providers.

While traditional economic goals such as productivity and prosperity are important, they are not enough in themselves to create social wellbeing. A truly prosperous society is one that values time as well as money, whether this is time spent with children or other relatives in leisure activities, time spent working voluntarily within community or time spent meeting day-to-day care needs.

Chapter 3: Legal protection for workers with family and carer responsibilities

At a federal level, the Australian Government has enacted laws that provide some protections for workers with family and carer responsibilities. These laws include the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). The states and territories have also enacted laws which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex, parental status and family and carer responsibilities.

There are also a number of international human rights obligations relevant to workers with family and carer responsibilities, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention (No 156) Concerning Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women Workers: Workers with Family Responsibilities (ILO 156).

Despite this, many men and women with family/carer responsibilities find themselves disadvantaged in the workplace when compared to workers without these responsibilities. This paper considers the existing legal protections for workers with family and carer responsibilities (focusing on federal discrimination law); the limitations of these laws; and the need for law reform to extend greater protection to these workers.

This paper outlines the limitations of the existing protections for workers with family/carer responsibilities and how these limitations would be most appropriately addressed through a separate specialised piece of legislation - a Family Responsibilities and Carers' Rights Act. To include expanded family responsibilities protection in the Sex Discrimination Act may serve to entrench the idea that caring is women's work - a separate Act would expressly encompass both men and women with family and carer responsibilities.

The new Act should define both direct and indirect discrimination on the ground of family and carer responsibilities, and proscribe such discrimination in all areas of employment. The Act should require HREOC to conduct relevant educative, research and policy work, and extend amicus curiae and intervention functions to a Commissioner. The Act should also include a right for workers to request flexible work arrangements due to family or carer responsibilities and to have the request reasonably considered by their employer. This means that employers must be able to demonstrate that they properly investigated whether such a request could be accommodated and reached a decision fairly on its merits. The right should encompass all forms of carer responsibilities and be available to men and women workers of all age.

While HREOC acknowledges that the "right to request" proposal imposes some additional obligations on employers, these obligations do not create any absolute employee rights and only require reasonable consideration.

This proposed legislation would provide men with a much improved regime to assist them in balancing their paid work and care responsibilities, and would be an important vehicle for overcoming long-standing stereotypes and promoting systemic change.

Chapter 4: Striking the balance in the workplace

While it is clear that the workplace is central to any discussion of balancing work and family, the relationship of the workplace to family life is inadequately acknowledged in public debate. Just as families rely on paid work for economic sustenance, workplaces rely on the unpaid work that takes place in families to sustain the labour force.

In response to questions posed in the Striking the Balance discussion paper, the following emerged as the key issues for addressing paid work and family and carer responsibilities in the workplace:

  • improving recognition of the relationship between workplaces and the broader community, and specifically of the care arrangements that support the workplace;
  • a mix of both certainty and flexibility in the conditions of work, adaptable for employees across the life course;
  • the need for structural changes to support gender equality and equality for carers;
  • expanded legal rights, specifically improved protection from discrimination, a right to paid maternity leave and a right to request flexible work arrangements; and
  • the need for cultural change in workplaces to expand existing family-friendly provisions and drive further changes.

While there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to paid work and family/carer responsibilities across the variety of industries, occupations and employers in Australia, the key issues need to be addressed by workplaces so that the balance between paid work and family life can improve.

Chapter 5: Striking the balance in the family

Australian women currently carry a much greater load of unpaid work in households, including child care, elder care and housework than men. The seemingly "private" decisions about arranging paid work and caring work are in fact shaped by the public context in which they are made: for example, the employment options available to families in particular communities, the availability of child and aged care, or the taxation implications of re-entering the paid workforce. While the majority of Australians believe in sharing parental care in particular, many feel unable to make this a reality.

Encouraging men to be involved in sharing care right from the beginning of children's lives is an important part of supporting shared care and moving towards equality. Families that have managed to realise their goal of sharing both paid work and care have been very positive about their experience. Supportive workplaces, father-friendly spaces and parenting services and positive social attitudes all contribute to making shared care a reality. Men who are heavily involved in caring and other unpaid responsibilities are well placed to be role models in the wider community and lead social change amongst their own networks.

Demographic changes such as low birth rates mean that in future many more people will not have family members living with them as they age. Providing support and care for people outside of one's home is likely to become a larger part of what we consider to be family and carer responsibilities. This also raises the need to consider care as a community responsibility, rather than simply that of individual households. This is particularly important for elder care, as many frail older people are choosing - and are increasingly encouraged - to remain in their own homes as they age.

Attitudes and behaviours towards caring, such as the perception that it is only women's responsibility, are often the result of unquestioned gender assumptions that become entrenched at an early age and need to be actively challenged if they are not to form artificial barriers to balancing work and family life. Education and awareness raising play a crucial role in supporting cultural change.

It is also important to incorporate men's role as carers into existing policy frameworks and initiatives. Part of this mainstreaming is the development of existing family services and programs so that they adequately address the needs of men as carers.

Chapter 6: Government support: Welfare and tax

The Australian welfare system helps support individuals and families to balance their caring responsibilities with their paid work. The taxation system works in concert with the welfare system to provide both incentives and disincentives for families making choices about work and care arrangements, and transitioning from one stage of the work/care life cycle to the next.

It is clear from HREOC's consultations that the welfare system needs to adhere to certain principles in order to provide adequately for workers with family responsibilities.

Firstly, the welfare system needs to work with and not against other forms of support for workers with family responsibilities. Second, the "shared work - valued care" approach should underpin the welfare system's response to paid work and family/carer responsibilities in order to maximise choice. Third, the system should support all types of families and carers combining paid work with caring and be flexible enough to meet changing needs for care support arising throughout the life course. Finally, the interaction between welfare payments and the tax system needs to be kept at the centre of policy development in these areas, particularly in terms of incentives and disincentives that may affect families' capacity to combine paid work and care.

Welfare responses and taxation arrangements need to be flexible enough to operate efficiently and helpfully for men and women located at different points along the life course, across differing family, socio-economic and other circumstances, as well as across different types of caring.

Australia's superannuation system was highlighted as an area that needs reform because of its lack of recognition of unpaid caring work. Currently it is women who are more likely to spend more time out of paid work due to caring responsibilities and as a result are more likely to retire with much lower levels of superannuation benefits and retirement savings than men. More work needs to be done in this area.

Chapter 7: Government support: early childhood and care

The provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a central concern of Australian families. The provision of child care for infants, care for school aged children before and after school and during school holidays, and preschool education were most frequently raised by parents during HREOC's consultations.

Widespread endorsement of a national policy framework for early childhood would represent an important development for Australian children in an environment in which the provision of ECEC services has been historically fragmented with patchy availability and wide variations in affordability across States and Territories.

It is important that choices are available for families relying on both formal and informal care services. The more types of care available the more likely it is that families will find care that they regard as suitable for their children.

Governments need to take a life cycle approach which considers a range of caring needs and assists the diverse range of families, parents and other family carers to maintain an active attachment to the paid workforce.

The availability, affordability and flexibility of formal child care services were highlighted as critical issues for many families during the course of this project. These concerns all have a major impact on the balance between paid work and family.

It is essential that children's services are seen as an integrated part of national goals to promote the wellbeing of children and families.

Chapter 8: Government support: care for adults and support for carers

All Australians will be, at some point in their lives, the receivers of care, and the overwhelming majority will also be providers of care.

More than 2.6 million Australians provide informal care to a person who needs assistance due to disability, chronic illness or old age and almost half a million of these are primary carers. Women carers in particular are often providing care for both older and younger family members. Many carers are also combining paid work with their caring responsibilities.

Governments provide a range of support services aimed specifically at carers and support has increased significantly in recent years. However, this paper finds that support for working carers of older people and people with disability is a key area in which further funding, research and policy development is required.

A shared work - valued care approach must recognise the universal nature of the need for care and provide affordable and accessible support services that allow people with disability and older people to participate as fully as possible in their communities. This approach means valuing the work of paid carers by providing them with decent wages and employment conditions. It also means providing family carers with flexibility in their workplaces, ensuring that unpaid carers are financially supported so that their caring work does not leave them impoverished and providing practical support and resources for the diverse range of carers.

Chapter 9: Other issues

Decisions about how to combine paid work and family responsibilities are not only informed by pressures and supports within areas such as the workplace, public policies and formal and informal care arrangements. The planning and design of our cities and transport systems can directly affect both the quality and quantity of time available for unpaid work and caring responsibilities, and other important parts of life such as including engaging with friends, neighbours and community activities. Although the design of our built environment cannot create community, it can ensure that people have the places and the time to interact with their families and communities.

Long commuting times were consistently raised as factors affecting the balance of paid work and family life. For people in regional and remote areas, access to transport can be difficult. For people with disability, difficulties in combining paid work and care can be compounded by lack of access to and the high cost of transport. Elder care responsibilities can be harder to meet for adult children who have established their careers and their families a long way from their ageing parents.

Many public institutions, such as schools, rely on volunteer work to function effectively. Voluntary work, including various types of "caring" work within the community, also creates broader social capital from which families and communities benefit. The social benefits of strong community networks of support are often undervalued and overlooked.

A better balance of paid work and family/carer responsibilities among men and women must include a response to the need for neighbourhood wellbeing, including building local community capacity to care for its members.

Chapter 10: Conclusion

The Australian community has shared a plethora of stories about women, men, work and family over the course of this project. It is clear that many families are struggling to meet the time demands of current paid work and family/carer responsibilities. This challenge has wider implications for meeting future care needs, which are likely to increase as the population ages and people engage in paid work for longer periods.

Australian women, men and children clearly indicated that they value care: for children, for older people and for people with disability. They also expressed the need for genuine flexibility within workplaces to support employees balancing their paid work and their family/carer responsibilities.

The costs of not meeting this challenge are immense: for individuals who shift to poorer quality paid work in order to meet their dual responsibilities, or drop out of the workforce altogether; for employers, particularly in industries with skills shortages; and of chief importance, for the economy as a whole in terms of workforce participation and productivity.

This paper sets out a new framework for meeting paid work and family/carer responsibilities in Australia by addressing three central challenges: changes in caring needs and responsibilities across the life cycle; equality between men and women in paid and unpaid work; and valuing care. A shared work - valued care approach forms a key part of this framework.

Making this new framework a reality requires commitment from governments, employers, communities and families and individuals themselves, because in the end, striking the balance between paid work and family/carer responsibilities is a shared responsibility.

It's about time these issues were given the national attention they require.

29 January, 2008