Paid parental leave is a feminist issue
There are two different visions for paid parental leave (PPL) — one put forward by the federal Labor government and the other by Liberal leader Tony Abbott.
Abbott’s proposal is seemingly not supported by industry or sections of the Coalition. It would provide 26 weeks’ full salary to mothers earning up to $150,000 a year. Partners could opt to be primary carer if they accept payment according to the mother’s replacement wage of up to $75,000.
If the mother earns less than the minimum wage, the replacement amount would be at that level. There is also a two-week provision for partner leave at their normal rate of pay. The estimated $4 billion cost would be raised by a 1.5% levy on businesses earning more than $5 million in taxable income.
The Family Assistance Office would administer leave, rather than employers.
The ALP scheme is built on similar provisions established in the late 1970s for 12 months unpaid maternity leave available for women who have been employed for 12 months with the same employer with the right to return to the same job.
The ALP scheme, which became operational on January 1 last year, is for 18 weeks at the universal standard payment of the minimum wage of $606 a week (thus unrelated to actual earnings) for primary carers who have been employed continuously for 12 months by the same employer with the right to return to the same job.
Partners can access two weeks leave at the same rate. Anyone earning more than $150,000 a year is not eligible for the leave.
Employers administer the pay, but don’t fund it. The payment comes from the government, through Centrelink. It does allow employers to top up paid leave.
Those who take up this leave entitlement cannot claim the baby bonus and some Family Tax benefits. This year’s federal budget cut the baby bonus but raised the Family Tax Benefit A by $2000 for the birth or adoption of the first child and $1000 for each subsequent child if the family isn’t claiming the paid parental leave.
Projected increases in such benefits have been abandoned.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) said that last year, of all its reporting organisations, more than half had an average paid maternity leave of 9.7 weeks. A further 5% planned to introduce this during the next year.
A third offered an average paid paternity leave of 1.6 weeks. A further 6% planned to introduce this during the next year.
These figures show that the top-up provisions are working and Labor’s scheme has not led businesses to cut existing leave programs. It indicates that WGEA’s reporting organisations recognised the impact of family needs on the work experience.
Feminist commentator Eva Cox has supported Abbott’s scheme. She has said it is based on industrial context, rather than Labor’s “welfare” scheme.
Parental leave is a legitimate ongoing workplace entitlement linked to replacement pay rates in the same way that other leave loadings such as sick pay are linked.
Cox said this should not discriminate against women who are highly paid. Feminists have campaigned for this to overcome workplace culture and discrimination to recognise both parents’ role in workplaces.
The Abbott plan, she said, is a step in the right direction but with limitations.
Abbott says his scheme provides the incentive for high-paid women to pursue a career and a family. He said on May 7: “We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career . . . If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so.”
The “women of that calibre” comment sparked anger from many. Labor ministers Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek said the comment was another example of Abbott’s sexism and lack of respect for women on lower wages.
Neither minister mentioned the clear class bias in Abbott’s values and attitudes.
This was when Cox sprang to defend the policy, criticising accusations of sexism as “overreactions”. Neither Cox nor the Labor ministers focused on the problems inherent in both schemes.
Any step toward paid parental leave is positive, but the size of this step is minimal compared with many OECD countries’ parental leave provisions.
There are also basic flaws in the little that is offered in both models. Neither is based in the industrial context. In fact, they are essentially welfare and government-driven and both lack the accrual of other benefits such as superannuation for the duration of the leave period.
Neither account for women that are in continuous employment with different employers for the 12-month period.
Employers can also use the word “continuous” to avoid providing leave by sacking women before 12 months or deliberately breaking the pattern of continuity of the work, particularly in part-time and casual jobs.
But even when there is continuous employment there are the pedantic interpretations — a shift within an industry between different employers has been interpreted as a break in continuity.
Similar problems occur with the return-to-the-job provision. The unpaid leave experience generated many complaints to anti-discrimination agencies when no jobs eventuated on trying to return to work.
The PPL models could generate similar problems in the industrial context of unfair dismissal.
A feminist solution
People must face the reality of Australian society and its institutions and culture.
The Australian economy assumes a two-family income is basic to survival and economic growth. When one partner takes leave to produce and rear children, real disadvantage of lost wages and choices occur for most people. It is even more drastic for single parents.
The widening wealth gap in society and rising cost of living worsens this.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s made real gains in removing discriminatory laws, changing attitudes and opening education, employment and professions to women. But this hasn’t achieved equality.
Many gains have been driven backward or hit barriers. The gender pay gap between men and women working full-time is about 17.5% and has grown over the past six years. Women have risen in the employment hierarchy, but only about 1 in 10 achieve top executive positions in ASX 500 companies.
Australia lags behind other countries with similar systems of corporate governance, such as Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.
There are problems at the top end of the class scale, but the situation for women in the middle layers and working class is declining more drastically.
A feminist solution must focus on the experience of the majority.
This is seen more clearly in the government PPL scheme in practice and in the private provisions by companies. These really are maternity leave provisions given the underlying demographic of the Australian workforce experience.
Women mostly take the role of prime carer and this has a cumulative effect if they choose to have children. The WGEA says women returning to work from one year of maternity leave can expect a 5% drop in earnings compared with previous earnings.
A three-year gap is a 10% drop and an increasing impediment to career advancement. A growing proportion of women have chosen careers instead of children, which is partly what the Abbott scheme tries to address.
This operates at the level of society and more particularly in workplace practices and culture that affect already discriminatory policies and attitudes.
There is a bias that privileges men and disadvantages women whose job commitment can be questioned or considered secondary given their assumed primary role in child rearing and unpaid care provision.
Some say Abbott’s scheme will backfire and reinforce this rather than improve the situation. This isn’t a matter of choice. The choice for women to do this is driven and reinforced through discriminatory practice, which impedes a similar choice for men.
PPL in Sweden deals with this in an integrated manner. Leave for both parents together is at 80% of their wages for the first year of a child’s life. Men are subject to quite intensive educational programs to reinforce and encourage the need for fathers to take the leave and to bond with their children in the first year of life.
This is reinforced by a state funded comprehensive quality developmental program of early childhood services and after school programs for primary schooling.
Paid parental leave must address all aspects of discrimination and be coupled with effective early childhood programs that are cheap and available for all.
This is a social necessity in the same way that primary and secondary education is compulsory and necessary for the collective development of the skills and talents of all.