2014

Leave or Leave?

working-mom

A great political debate currently festering in the bowels of Australia’s parliament centres on the form and substance of Parental Leave provided by the government.

Our previous Labor government instituted a system where any primary carer can claim a number of weeks of payments when their baby is born, at the minimum wage. This payment was paid regardless of the person’s wage, their employment status or their combined household income. This payment was paid, even if the person was eligible for paid leave from their employer. The current conservative government want to change the system to (as I understand it) pay under the same conditions, except at the person’s actual wage.

Both schemes are essentially expensive to the tax payer and, in my opinion, leave a dangerous loop hole for employers to take advantage of. If the government will pay parental leave to citizens, why should an employer offer it from their pocket? Why should they fork out tens of thousands of dollars for their employees to have or adopt babies? What do they get in return?

As it stands, many employers do offer this type of leave and find it to be an attractive offer for potential employees, both primary and secondary carers, for those giving birth or adopting. This is fantastic, though I feel there is room for a government to legislate for employers to provide it as a mandatory entitlement, just as annual and sick leave. Should it be a welfare entitlement? I’m not convinced.

This is all geared towards, and justified by the need for, women and primary carers returning to the workforce after having a child. Unfortunately, I don’t see how payments during a period of leave in the first months of a child’s life will guarantee their parent will return to active work and their pre-child career. It hasn’t in my case, or in the cases of many women across the country.

If employers and government want to know the great secret of returning women and primary carers to the workforce, it doesn’t rest in the months immediately following the birth of a child. It doesn’t even rely on the primary carer maintaining their role as a wage earner during that period, that is paid leave compared to unpaid leave. It rest solely in what happens 6 to 12 months after a baby joins a family – the time when the leave runs out – the time when the parent reaches a fork in the road.

Do I return to work and leave my child in the care of another, or do I leave my job, and care for my child myself?

There are a few situations parents find themselves in:

– Needing to return to work because the wage is essential to the household

– Needing to return to work because their leave has run out and if they do not, they must resign from their job

– Unable to return to work because their wage is not sufficient to cover the exorbitant cost and inconvenience of child care.

Where do I sit in all this?

I was made redundant from my job while I was pregnant. It worked out well, as I was too sick to go to work and EBA negotiations with strikes and picket lines were so stressful I was hit with a panic attacks when I had to cross them to get to my office. I never needed to claim leave from my employer because by the time my son was born, I didn’t have a job.

Interestingly, since the introduction of the Parental Leave payments, the women I know aren’t going back to work any more readily than they were beforehand. Why? The government have paid them to have the baby! Isn’t that enough?

No.

The reason primary care givers aren’t returning to work after having a baby is they simply can’t find jobs that are simultaneously:

– Flexible around the needs of their children

– Pays enough to cover the cost of full time child care as well as leaving cash for bills and leisure

– Provides access to ‘close to workplace’ child care to ease the transition from leave back to work.

These are highly skilled people, mostly women, with degrees and certificates evidencing years of training and study in their field, keen to contribute to their families both emotionally and financially and to the broader economy. These are not women who worked in their younger years with a goal to ‘go on maternity leave’, as though it is some company-paid holiday in Bora-Bora. These are women who want to continue their careers and share in the raising of their kids. Some of them are also the sole income earners for their households, as well as the sole carer. Some of these women are going back to work to literally put food on the table, instead of going on welfare payments until the kids are old enough for school.

These are primary carers who find themselves in a situation where there is no winner. There is no way to mitigate the impact, unless by some splash of luck your partner receives a pay-rise equal to your lost wage. This is of course the choice couples make when they discover they are pregnant or decide to adopt, but must it be so inflexible and cruel? So unkind and cold?

Go to work or go on welfare, or else you’ll starve?

Go back to work, or lose your job?

Surrender your career or place your child in the care of another, at a huge cost?

The up-shot of all this, is that paid parental leave during the first months of a child’s life, is not the answer to getting primary carer’s back into work. It is a very important workplace entitlement that should be legislated just as fiercely as annual or sick leave, but it is only part of an answer to a very complex question.

The keys to returning carers to work are:

– mandatory parental leave for primary carers, provided by the employer

– affordable, or free child care (as provided in France) within a close distance to the workplace

– flexible, negotiable work hours to incorporate the demands of child rearing into the employee’s day

 

Without these, the carers we want to keep in work will continue to leave, and the economy and employers will continue to haemorrhage hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity and training costs. Until employers and government cease to treat the home and workplace as chalk and cheese, unable to be integrated and flexible around each other, we will never see true equality in our communities. Women will always lose out, someone will always be worse off thanks to the arrival of a baby, instead of up-lifted, and we will never truly see what our country can achieve.

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