In the face of the Rudd government's refusal to confirm whether federally-funded maternity leave will be included in the upcoming May budget, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has retreated from its previous stance calling for immediate implementation.
The new ACTU position is a watered-down call for the scheme to be "phased in" over a number of years.
ACTU National Secretary Sharan Burrow told ABC radio on March 2 that due to the scale of the economic crisis, it may be necessary to phase in the scheme over a number of years.
This is despite widespread support for the introduction of paid parental leave by women's and community groups. Even the Australian Industry Group initially welcomed the proposal — largely because business was exempted from contributions.
Australia is one of only two OECD countries without some form of paid maternity leave. The other country is the United States.
In 2008, the Rudd government promised to finally implement a maternity leave scheme for Australia. The productivity commission was asked to prepare a report that assessed the costs and benefits of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave.
The final report has now been given to the government, and is expected to be tabled within the next few weeks.
It has been reported that the recommendations included in the draft report, Paid Parental Leave: Support for Parents with Newborn Children, released in September 2008, have remained largely intact, except for a requirement for employers to make superannuation contributions during maternity leave.
The commission concluded that 18 weeks of maternity leave should be paid at the adult minimum wage. A further two weeks of paternity leave would be available for the father (or same-sex partner) under the proposal.
Access to paid leave would be granted to women who have worked an average of 10 hours work per week with any number of employers over the previous 12 months, meaning that casuals, self-employed and contract workers would be eligible.
In a December article in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, University of Sydney academic, Dr Marian Baird, pointed out that estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest that around half of Australia's female workers do not have access to paid maternity leave.
She further noted that paid maternity leave is concentrated in the public sector, and in the industries of finance, insurance, education and utilities. It is largely absent from the female-dominated and low-paid industries of retail and accommodation, cafes and restaurants.
In 2008, Rudd promised his government would mark a departure from the "12 years of neglect" on maternity leave by the government of former PM John Howard.
"It's time Australia bit the bullet on paid maternity leave, we intend to get on with the job and we will get the policy setting right", Rudd said in September 2008.
Now it appears that maternity leave will be one of the first things "neglected" under Rudd. The ACTU is wrong to go along with the government's backpedalling. The economic crisis means that women and families need more rights and support, not less.
The proposed maternity leave scheme is far from perfect. A much better alternative would include at least 12 months paid parental leave, funded through a collective levy on employers. Such a levy could be applied on a progressive scale so large businesses would contribute more than smaller businesses.
But regardless of this, to delay the implementation of any maternity leave at all is simply another way to make working people, rather than business, pay for the crisis. No delay in maternity leave is acceptable.