Australia and maternity leave

THERE has always been an obvious way to find the answer to Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” Ask them. Ann Sherry did just that when she became a general manager at the Westpac bank and realised the cost to the bank of a high turnover of skilled female employees, especially after childbirth. “Nearly 70 per cent of our staff are female and most of them are front-line service staff, the ones who build relationships with customers,” she says.

First, she did the sums: “We had a look at their average length of service and their skill levels, how much the organisation had invested in them and how much they cost to replace.”
Then she asked women why they chose to resign when having a baby, rather than take maternity leave. Sherry discovered that many quit simply so that they could cash in their benefits to set up the baby’s nursery. “Having a baby is a high-cost exercise,” Sherry says. “You need millions of baby things and dozens of nappies at a time when your income drops.

“We realised that, by keeping their income going over that critical period, we would ease the pressure on them to resign. We worked out that if we increased our return-to-work rate by only 10 per cent, the cost savings to us would pay for maternity leave across the organisation. So we did it.”
Women at Westpac now have six weeks paid and 12 months unpaid maternity leave, and Sherry’s predictions have been proved right: “We keep more of our skilled people and we keep their commitment.”

This is a rare Australian story. Most women are in the workforce before they have their first child but only about 17 per cent are eligible for paid maternity leave.

In a recent survey, the United Nations named Australia as one of the world’s poorest providers of paid maternity leave (although it was one of the best with unpaid leave, with a national standard of 12 months). The report on 152 countries by the International Labor Organisation said Australia is one of only six that does not require that women be paid during maternity leave. (The other five are the United States, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland.)

The report, Maternity Protection at Work, estimated that women provide the main source of income in 30 per cent of the world’s households. In Western countries, more than 55 per cent of working women supply half or more of their family’s income. “Without cash and health benefits, many women could not afford to take maternity leave or might be forced to return to work before their health allowed,” the report said.

In Australia, the few private-sector areas with paid maternity leave, such as car manufacturing, tend to be those in which unions have won the benefit as part of award negotiations or enterprise bargaining deals. (Public sector unions have won the nation’s most generous benefits, with 12 weeks paid leave). Such proposals seldom come from management, where maternity leave is more often viewed as another cost to be avoided.

David Edwards, the chief executive officer of the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shares this more typical view. “One person’s paid maternity leave is another person’s job,” he argues. “The European countries that pay such benefits and have high levels of social services also have the highest levels of unemployment.

“The issue for Australia is how to balance the community’s need for better employment benefits and social services with issues of unemployment and with the competitive market we face in Asia, where there is no paid maternity leave.”

For Professor Belinda Probert, director of the centre for applied social research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the issue is not whether paid maternity leave should be introduced, but how best to introduce it fairly.

She dismisses Edward’s argument that it inevitably increases unemployment. “The Scandinavian countries had this benefit long before they had high unemployment,” she says. “It is true that some small businesses, for example, would find it very hard to pay for maternity leave, but no business is willingly going to pay when it knows that its competitors are not.”
In 1995, the Keating Government introduced a maternity allowance (currently a one-off payment of $950) upon the birth of a child. Because it is made to all mothers, including those not in the paid workforce, it is not, technically, paid maternity leave. It also falls short of what the ACTU had proposed at the time: an allowance of at least $140 a week for 12 weeks.

Overseas, payment systems vary. Some countries pay benefits through the social services system, others require employers to pay and a third group uses a combination of both. Denmark provides 18 weeks on full pay (social security), Switzerland eight weeks on full pay (employer) and Japan 14 weeks at 60 per cent of pay (social security).

Probert is concerned that Australia’s laissez-faire approach, which relies on each industry or workplace to negotiate its own terms, means that paid maternity leave will be introduced slowly and inequitably.

“The big policy question for Australia is the way we are making all these employment benefits hinge on enterprise bargaining,” she says. “That will only work for a few people in privileged industries, like education.” Probert fears that some workers will be forced to give away other benefits, such as sick leave, to win paid maternity leave.
She also fears that this could divide men and women, with male workers resenting losing established benefits so that females can have paid maternity leave. “In Scandinavia, maternity benefits are taken out of general revenue, so you don’t have to trade off something to get it,” she says.

There has long been concern that employer-paid maternity leave might discourage employers from hiring women. Linda Rubinstein, a senior industrial officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, says that when the ACTU pitched for unpaid maternity leave in 1979, it didn’t ask for paid leave for fear it would disadvantage women in the job market. This is no longer an issue because there are now comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, she says.

But she points to other barriers. Australia’s Constitution prevents the Federal Government legislating on employment conditions, making it difficult to introduce a national policy. And she doubts that any application for paid maternity leave would be approved by the Industrial Relations Commission in the current environment.

Anne Callanan, policy worker with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, says that it is interesting to note which needs employers have no difficulty accommodating.

She has a friend who works in a large, competitive company: “She often talks about the different attitude that is taken when a man has to take time off for a sporting injury versus when a woman needs time off because of her children. He gets sympathy. She gets a lot of muttering about how `She shouldn’t be doing that; can’t she get someone else to do it?”‘

Megan Wahr, 37, founder and co-ordinator of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, takes her four-month-old son to the office every day so that he can be held and breastfed while she works. She gave herself a week of unpaid leave when he was born.

An independent go-getter who has set up her own small business, Wahr used to believe it was up to individuals to make their own way. “I used to take the attitude that nobody owes you anything, that if you want children, you should pay for them.

“The reality of motherhood has changed my perspective. It’s not

something you can do autonomously. Suddenly you need people in a way you didn’t before. It’s been a great educator for me, teaching me that we are all links in the chain. The concept I had before was selfish and outmoded and completely unrealistic.”

For a woman running her own small business, “maternity leave is not very realistic. I planned four weeks’ leave with my first baby but only had about seven days because my secretary left suddenly. (Going back to work so soon) just killed me. You’re brain dead with lack of sleep.” Most small businesses could never afford to provide paid maternity leave, she says.

She is startled to learn that, in some countries, the government pays every mother during at least part of her maternity leave: “It’s a concept I’ve never considered … but I do think the community would benefit from women being paid to stay home for the first month or two, knowing that at least the minimum bills would be paid.”

Laura Young, 32, a spare-parts packer with General Motors-Holden, received six weeks’ paid maternity leave before taking 12 months unpaid leave to be with her third child, eight-month-old Murray. Holden subtracted from her maternity payment the equivalent of the maternity allowance she received from the Federal Government.

“This is my first paid maternity leave, so I know the difference between unpaid and paid. It means that I can stay off for a whole 12 months this time. It’s been lovely being home with the baby and being able to take the other children to school and to kinder.

“With my first child I could only take 10 months because we ran out of money. If I hadn’t got paid this time I would have had to go back by now. It’s so hard with a third; both the others are at school, so there are a lot of other costs – school fees, excursion levies, uniforms. They cost me $350 to get to school this year.”

Pip Knight, 29, public relations executive with a clothing company, is at home on 12 months unpaid maternity leave with her first baby.

“Until you actually have a baby, the issue isn’t of interest to you, but as soon as you get pregnant, you think ‘Oh God!’ You become acutely aware of what you don’t get.

“I wouldn’t expect an employer to pay for the 12 months you are at home, but I think there could be better incentives. I would like to see more things like job-sharing, that would allow you to be a mother and work as well. I think it would make staff feel more loyal and more contented … My employers have offered me a four-day week when I go back, which is better than five.

“Australia seems to be lagging behind. You read in magazines about how things are much more advanced in other countries, with maternity leave, job-sharing, creches at work. It would make the transition easier from workforce to motherhood and back again. I think the next generation will benefit from that.”

First published in The Age.