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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 14/05/2010 - Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010; Exposure draft of legislation implementing the government's announced paid parental leave scheme

Senator Hanson Young -In the submissions given by the ACTU and Unions South Wales, and in your verbal submissions as well, both of you indicated that there were significant improvements that you would be looking for in the future. I do pick up on the points you have made about wanting to strengthen the current legislation now in connection to the workplace, and that is something that we need to tease out a bit further. I guess that is why it is a good process for this Senate inquiry to be happening, to be honest. So I would like you to expand on that issue, but my first question is in relation to the fact that everybody at the table, including Ms Burrow, has said that this legislation is not perfect, that it needs to go further. We have heard we do not want to wait another 26 years, another 30 years to take it to the next level, so what is the time frame by which you think that it needs to be improved by?

Ms Burrow -We will look to do several things. One is that we will first of all consolidate and make sure that employers merge their schemes so that those with collective agreements will absolutely have at least 26 weeks. Most of the sector will actually end up having more, which is just a tremendous advantage. The issue of superannuation will be on our radar and we will certainly bargain for any deficit in regard to that security of retirement income. And we will do what we always do, we will then look to whether we can in fact talk to the government or use the award review process to see whether we cannot lock in some of those issues through fundamental awards, and where we can extend bargaining now with the low-paid bargaining provisions-they are yet to be tested, but we are very excited about them-in the Fair Work Act then we will again look to put it on the bargaining agenda. So there are a number of mechanisms industrially, which is where we usually set the benchmarks for achieving additional entitlements.

We are realists about public policy. If you take superannuation as an example, we started with three per cent. We always wanted to get 15. We now have a commitment in legislation-it will be in legislation, I hope, senators-that it will go to 12 per cent, and we will continue to argue. The way the industrial world works: if we did not stick at it, if we were not tenacious, if we expected Rome to be built in a day, then the working lives of Australians would be much poorer. So we will look at all mechanisms, including coming back to a government at some point in the future when we can demonstrate market inequity and arguing the case again.

But I have to stress again: to go from zero dollars to 4½ months, I am just asking you not to deny working women the security of that income, and, of course, their partners. We know that the Productivity Commission scoured the land for consultation. We respect their judgement. Of course we will always argue for improvement, that is actually our job, but at the same time when the women's organisations around the country and the union movement have said, 'This is a fair dinkum first step,' then we are asking you to support it.

Senator Hanson Young -What is the commitment that you are looking for from government to making sure that this is not just a holding pattern?

Ms Burrow -We would say three things really. One is that we would like to see the review expanded, and we would urge you to support that. I know, Senator «Hanson»-«Young», that you are interested in that. It would be a very good thing to be comprehensive because it is important that we monitor market failure, so that is the second thing, that between now and the review we would like to see it monitored. And, in the first instance, if we can get the review expanded and a couple of technical glitches-and given the scheme, we think the bill is very well drafted in the time that it has been constructed, and of course it has had the advantage of a consultative committee of women with expertise from a range of areas. That has been a good process, but there are still a couple of technical glitches. I am sure that Belinda and Jill have taken you through them, but we are particularly worried about seasonal work or those people who are stood down, say from school support staff or other professions, for perhaps a longer period of time but they have had a long-term cumulative attachment-usually to the same employer, but certainly the same occupation. So we would certainly ask you to fix those and maybe the others that my colleagues have put on the table.

If those three things are done, fixing a couple of those technical glitches now to make sure it is not excluding people that I do not think anyone would want to see excluded, we would want to see the review not just of the superannuation but also of the administrative arrangements of the scheme and what it is adding to by way of participation. We should be monitoring labour force participation because one of the economic advantages of this scheme-other than the social justice issue, as you would know-is if we are going to get participation rates to 70 per cent-and that is the target of COAG and Skills Australia-then one of the most underrepresented groups is women of childbearing age, in fact, amongst the lowest in the world. I can assure you that we will continue to press, but if the senators could look towards expanding the review, keeping the monitoring on track-both in terms of market equity and also participation-leading up to that review, I think that would be very helpful.

Ms Biddington -We could envision a wonderful world if we had the opportunity. You are right, we do not believe that it is perfect. I think that Ms Burrow has outlined the major issues. I would like to add the current provisions under the Fair Work Act which provide women returning from maternity leave the right to request part-time work. This is a lovely way to frame something and say that someone has the right to request it, but there is actually no entitlement to it.

I will relay a story which comes from a regional area around Byron Bay. It relates to a police officer, a single mum who had a child, her third child. In requesting the right to return to work she was told by area command that she could do that, she could return for 24 hours a week, which was two shifts. She is a single mum and childcare centres do not run for 12 hours a day. Her capacity to return to work was absolutely zero. She counter-offered and said: 'Could I return to work for three days of eight hours?' 'No, because we have 12-hour shifts.' She is a woman without any family in the area and the current childcare system does not operate on the basis of 12-hours care. Her employer could not understand why she could not afford to pay a nanny. These things are the real-life experiences of women who are highly valued and want to go back to work, but the world is not flexible for them. It operates around what employers are stuck in, their own mindset of what is best.

If it is not a police officer and it is someone like Sariah-and perhaps Sariah can tell the story about when she returned to work and asked for breastfeeding leave-there is a difficulty there too. I think you were told, Sariah, that maybe you had better come back in 12 months time when you had it sorted out.

Mrs Puriri-Giblin -Yes. Because I am a manager they did not see how I was going to work as a manager, running shifts, running my crew and dealing with customers. I needed three hours to express milk, but she could not find a way for me to do that while I was trying to run my shift because I would be the only manager on duty. She could not find 20 minutes out of the day for me to sit down and express milk. She asked me to come back after 12 months. I did not have paid maternity leave where I worked and I did not know how or where I was going to get that extra money to stay at home and do that, so I said: 'No, I have to come back to work.'

Ms Biddington -That would be one thing Unions New South Wales would want attention on. It is really critical for someone to be to take their leave and return to work-that is what we are basing it on. It is about the dignity of people being able to return to work. That is one issue that we which like recognition of. Apart from that, I think Ms Burrow has said it.

Senator Hanson Young -In saying that, I guess there are amendments that you are both looking for. Our challenge here is that we want to get a scheme up and running but we want to make sure it is the best possible scheme we can deliver. Of course there needs to be some tightening up of the legislation. We have pointed out the issue of seasonal workers, for example. I am picking up on Senator Adams's point that there are going to have to be amendments that are made to this legislation, even just to satisfy you guys. In order to do that, we will have to take evidence from the committee, draft the report, put the amendments to the Senate and work our way through it. What is going to be most helpful from my perspective is to have you guys supporting that process and not suggesting that anyone at this table does not want to get a scheme up and running. I totally understand Mrs Puriri-Giblin's predicament. This is an issue that affects women across all sectors, particularly those in the lower income brackets, particularly those in the casualised workforce, particularly those in seasonal work. We need to make sure we actually get it right so that they do not just happen to miss out because we cannot get those amendments up.

Ms Burrow -And let me be clear, Senator: we appreciate that and we are well aware of the good work that Senate committees do and that people find consensus around issues to either fix glitches or strengthen the bill. All we are looking for is that the three sets of folk-the opposition coalition, the Greens and the independent senators-say that they will have the debate, strong and hard, on any amendments they want to put up but, at the end of the day, they will not oppose this scheme. That would leave working women devastated-those women who now know they can plan finally around having children with income security next year. If they lose this, if we go into an election period and have another round of debate about a scheme, we could see two years elapse before women would again have any optimism, and there would be a lot of trauma and tragedy in the meantime. So we are certainly not discouraging you from the amendment process or robust debate-that is in fact your job-but we are asking on this bill that there is a fundamental commitment to see the bill through.

CHAIR -Senator Hanson Young , you have run out of time already, but if you have one more question you can ask it and we will see how we go.

Senator Hanson Young -My question is on superannuation. I understand that the ACTU-and perhaps the other unions-were involved in the consultation process for drafting the legislation to some extent. What is your understanding of the reasoning as to why superannuation is not included?

Ms Burrow -It is a cost issue for the government. You would have to ask the government that, but it is a cost issue for them. That is my understanding of the rationale. It is not an oppositional piece. As we said in the submissions, it is such a little cost to the employer for the rate of return they get in terms of participation and reduction in costs of turnover. Talk to any major company. I think we have got a big education process with small to medium business. I might take this opportunity to say, if my colleagues did not, that if there are recommendations that would assist in the education process for small business then we would very much welcome and support those. But look at big business and ask any of them. We were in Woolworths a couple of weeks ago when Jenny Macklin released this, and the Woolworths manager said it is a saving on their bottom line. Frankly, we have got two ways to go on superannuation. We will certainly bargain for it where we can and where there is a market inequity. We will come back to that review. If you work miracles and change the government's mind, that will be a good thing, but I do not suspect, given the debate that has gone on on this, that we will win this this time. But certainly the review piece there, to look at it next time and look at where there is market inequity, is absolutely fundamental for us.

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