The Rudd government has asked the Productivity Commission to examine the economic, productive and social benefits of introducing a national paid maternity leave scheme. The Commission has heard submissions from a range of unions, business and community groups, and is due to release its report in February, 2009.
Australia is one of only two OECD countries (the US being the other) that do not provide its workers with some form of paid maternity leave. Australia also has a relatively low workforce participation rate for women aged 25-44 years. This can be at least partly attributed to a lack of paid maternity leave and other support for working mothers. Employers offering paid maternity leave estimate that 90% of their female employees return to work after having a baby, saving them the full cost of replacing skilled staff.
Presently, it is not compulsory for employers to provide paid maternity leave in Australia. It is largely left up to the discretion of individual employers. While most public sector workers have won the right to 12-14 weeks paid maternity leave, many women who make up the majority of casual and part-time workers, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries, do not receive any form of paid maternity leave. Only one-third of women have access to paid maternity leave at all.
The Howard government promoted the baby bonus as a "substitute" for paid maternity leave by arguing that paying only working women discriminated against women who chose to stay at home. Labor's decision to pay the bonus fortnightly over 13 fortnights, at the rate of around $385 a fortnight, extends this "substitute" even further.
Some companies have recently introduced maternity leave schemes of their own. For example, Myers has introduced six weeks paid maternity leave for staff who have worked a minimum of 18 months and Woolworths has announced it will introduce eight weeks paid maternity leave for women who have been permanently employed by them for at least two years.
These schemes don't go far enough, for two important reasons.
Firstly, putting criteria in place for a woman to qualify for payment, such as having been with the company for two years, allows the employers too much control over women's child-bearing decisions. Women who wouldn't be able to survive without paid leave may delay their plans to have a baby just to meet arbitrary criteria set by a company.
Secondly, women or their partners need the option of taking more than one or two months off to fully maximise their child-rearing choices. Many parents would like to take a full year off to raise their infant but are financially compelled to return to work earlier than this.
In April, the Community and Public Sector Union launched a campaign demanding six months paid maternity leave for the public sector. The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months, but a new Melbourne University study shows that mothers tend to stop breastfeeding their babies if they return to work within six months of birth. The report's authors call for six months paid leave as well as more support for breastfeeding in Australian workplaces.
Unions NSW is calling for a government-funded system of six months paid maternity leave for all women irrespective of their employment status. They also argue that paid leave should be available to any parent who assumes the role of primary carer. They argue that paid maternity leave should be set at the minimum wage and that employers should top up payments for women who earn more than the minimum wage. This would be achieved through employers paying a levy into a central fund, which would be distributed to employees as needed much like superannuation.
However, the Australian Council of Trade Unions supports a national scheme of a minimum of only 14 weeks paid maternity leave at the federal minimum wage (plus 9 % superannuation), again with employers making up the difference if a woman earns more than the minimum wage. The ACTU's position comes despite admitting that six months paid leave is becoming the international benchmark.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and the Australian Industry Group (AIG) chief executive Heather Ridout also support similar taxpayer-funded paid maternity leave schemes.
The Socialist Alliance argues that providing all Australian women with paid maternity leave is an important step towards achieving women's full equality. Women are often disadvantaged by having children because they never replace lost income or miss out on important opportunities such as promotions due to having interrupted careers.
The scheme currently being proposed by the ACTU and other key groups relies almost entirely on taxpayers' money to fund them. It does not recognise the fact that women who have children are producing and rearing the next generation of workers, which employers rely on to run their businesses at a profit.
Capitalist society continues to teach us that having babies is part of women's "natural" role, the only way to be really fulfilled as women. Because we are meant to want to do it, and find it so rewarding, we're not expected to demand or require any support from the government. Capitalism's needs women to continue to care for children and other dependents who are not able to work (i.e. the sick, the elderly and those with disabilities) for free, so that the government doesn't have to pay for it.
The recent media debate about maternity leave highlights the deep contradictions within capitalism which on the one hand, seeks to reinforce women's "responsibilities" at home and on the other, to maintain women's participation in the paid workforce. The ruling class does not have an interest in driving women en masse from the workforce, because they provide a super-exploitable pool of labour, which helps keep the wages and conditions of the working class as whole down.
Employers have nothing to lose from the model currently being proposed by the ACTU, as support from business groups like the AIG highlight.
The Socialist Alliance also argues that the woman's partner should have the ability to take paid leave to support her and bond with their children when they are first born. Providing only paid maternity leave to women reinforces the notion that it is a woman's place to stay home with the children. Making paid parental leave available to both men and women gives couples more choice about how they care for and raise their families.
The Socialist Alliance proposes an alternative model of 12 months paid parental leave, which could be funded through a collective levy on employers, which would operate like an additional tax that is paid each year. The levy system would be progressive so that big businesses pay more than smaller business who may otherwise struggle to cover the additional cost.
This levy system could be collected and administered through an independent body. It would also be available to employees regardless of their sex. This would remove the temptation for employers to discriminate against women in their hiring practices (a key argument against employer-funded maternity leave currently being put forward by big business).
The Australian working class as a whole — women, men and children — would benefit from such a scheme, which provides real choices to women and their partners.
[Anthea Stutter is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Hobart.]