Business slated over work/family

EMPLOYER GROUPS were recently taken to task after claiming they would have to discriminate against women of child-bearing age if the ACTU Work and Family Test Case was successful in extending unpaid maternity leave from 12 to 24 months and providing full-time employees with a right to return to part-time work after having a child

EMPLOYER GROUPS were recently taken to task after claiming they would have to discriminate against women of child-bearing age if the ACTU Work and Family Test Case was successful in extending unpaid maternity leave from 12 to 24 months and providing full-time employees with a right to return to part-time work after having a child.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and Federal Government claimed that companies wouldn’t be able to afford the potential costs associated with the ACTU’s claim, and as such, would be unlikely to hire women of child-bearing age.

However Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja dismissed the claims as “chauvinist nonsense” and an “excuse to authorise discrimination against women in the workplace”.

“Submissions by the government and employers indicate they are prepared to turn back the clock on women’s work practices and at the same time, sanction discrimination against women,” she said.

“No-one would dare suggest men who were starting families should face systemic discrimination in the workforce, yet that is the gist of submissions from both the government and employers in relation to women.”

She said Australia lags behind the rest of the world in acknowledging this fact and translating it into a workplace right, pointing to the lack of a national paid maternity leave scheme.

The landmark test case, which is currently before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, also includes provisions for employees to be able to ‘buy’ up to six weeks extra annual leave through salary sacrifice, and request their employers change start and finish times and work location to accommodate family responsibilities.

However ACCI workplace relations manager Peter Anderson said that employers shouldn’t be responsible for balancing workers’ personal lives and shrugged off suggestions that businesses should have to shoulder the burden of the ACTU’s claims.

“It’s simply not possible to elevate the relationship between an employee and their family into the same category as the obligations that a business has for the commercial conduct of that business,” he said.

“There are boundaries of business responsibility and the role we have in this case is to inject some much-needed reality into the work and family debate. It isn’t just about family, it is also about work.”

The Australian Industry Group (AiG) acknowledged the test case would force employers to think twice about employing women of child-bearing age, but said decisions about work and family should be agreed upon at the enterprise level.

“In our view, the law shouldn’t lead these areas, it should really encapsulate the trends that are occurring,” said AiG chief executive Heather Ridout.

“We are seeing a lot of varied arrangements emerge within our members workplaces, and they’re working well when they are there by agreement.”

ACTU president Sharan Burrow said claims under the test case would involve little or no cost, and were a result of workplaces being out of touch with the needs of families.

“They refuse to acknowledge that voluntary change is too slow and that we need to improve the rights of working parents to request greater flexibility,” she said.

Citing statistics in which women now make up about 45 per cent of the workforce, compared to about 26 per cent in 1978, she said Australian workplaces were designed for men, by men of another era.

It’s not known when the AIRC will hand down its decision, however hearings are expected to continue for a number of months.

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