Childcare: an election sleeper?
Published in Sunday Mail, 12th of September 2004
This week's contest between Labor and the Coalition over family payments and tax has ignored a key issue for many Australian families: childcare. Two childcare issues are affecting thousands every day: finding good quality care, and finding enough money to pay for it. Shortages of childcare affect more and more Australian families, as demand has run ahead of inadequate supply in recent years. Parents cannot find adequate childcare for close to 150,000 children at present. While a fair system of family payments is essential to help low and middle income families, real choice for many working families depends on accessible childcare.
You can bet that some children are being left in unsafe circumstances while their parents try to cope. Not so long ago, I interviewed a couple who regularly left their toddler alone for half an hour in the car outside their workplace, as they swapped shifts. They hated doing this. They knew it was unsafe. But they needed their wages, and paying for childcare would have drained one whole wage, so the parents alternated shifts. Many other Australian parents work hours opposite to each other like this, as a means of childcare. It can be hard on relationships and on children
Today's babies and toddlers won't be voting for a long time. But they will have strong opinions about the childcare they experience, if the views of some young Australians I have recently talked to are any indication. They are likely to remember much of their current childcare centre experiences very positively - where they have been lucky enough to experience quality care. Many of today's teenagers who have been in well staffed childcare centres have strong memories of loving and funny carers, friends they have made and kept through to school, and equipment and playgrounds they've enjoyed. Many plan to use childcare for their own children. But they say they will be watching closely for quality - including good carers, good food, good facilities and happy relationships.
Plenty of research tells us that a dollar spent in early childhood is saved many times over in later life through well-adjusted adults. At present, relative to other OECD countries, Australia spends a very small proportion of government funds on children's services. We rank 17th out of 20 OECD countries in terms of the generosity of public support for childcare, paid leave for parents and child benefits, with only New Zealand, Mexico and Turkey worse off. Australian families and children are the losers. New research released by Dr Margaret Simms at this weeks parenting conference in Adelaide tells us that quality childcare makes all the difference to outcomes for children. Good early childhood services include enough childcare places, with adequate levels of well trained and fairly paid staff. At present we pay many of our childcare workers less than we pay garbage collectors or car park attendants. Everyone from the Prime Minister down thinks that childcare workers deserve decent pay. Unfortunately action to deliver it is all too slow.
In the current election - and beyond - our politicians should be looking ahead: Australia needs a national scheme of quality childcare so that parents who need it can find good childcare, and afford it, and no one has to make unsafe or unsatisfactory 'choices'. Our children will thank us for it in the future.
Only a casual? But isn't casual work highly desirable?
Published in Online Opinion,
Australians e-journal of social and political debate,
Monday, August 16, 2004
A new qualitative study of the experiences of 55 casual workers challenges some Australian myths about casual work. In the study, 55 casual workers were interviewed about their views on casual work. The group were randomly selected from a pool of 136 current or past casual workers who responded to newspaper calls for their participation, to flyers distributed by their employers or in their workplaces or at university, or were drawn from a random sample of members of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees? Association, along with ten names offered by four other unions.
In terms of overall views of casual work, three types of casuals are evident in the study: the positive, the ambivalent and the reluctant. The majority are reluctant casuals: 36 of the 55 interviewed are negative about being casual. Many are very negative. A quarter is overall positive about being casual. Most of these are students, younger people or women with dependents. All are part-time. Most have a back up source of income - a partner, parent or pension - and most are at certain stages in their life cycle. Two key conditions drive satisfaction: real say over working time through a "reciprocal negotiating" relationship with the employer, and a back up source of income. Often both are present among positive casuals
While flexibility is often taken as the defining characteristic of casual work, it is far from the only criteria taken into account by casual workers when assessing overall experience. The experience of casual work is multi-faceted. Issues affecting overall assessments include flexibility for the worker; predictability of pay and hours; respect, say, training and promotion at work; sick and holiday pay; and impacts on health, home and community.
Some employees find that being casual gives them flexibility. Twenty-three of those interviewed in the study - or 42 per cent - feel that they had some flexibility and say over their work patterns. Some value it highly. However, the majority do not have flexibility: fifty-eight per cent of those in the study see flexibility as something their employers get, but they do not.
Flexibility has many dimensions including predictability of ongoing work, days of work, total hours, start and finish times and breaks. Many casuals have surprisingly little capacity to influence these aspects of their casual work, despite the promise of casual flexibility. Many feel on call, more than in charge of their working time.
Most interviewees would prefer to be permanent. Some have tried to become so, without success. Some are in a long-term casual ghetto. For many, casual work is not a pathway into permanency.
A good boss emerges as very important to satisfaction with casual work. A good relationship with this boss is critical to real flexibility for most. Depending on a good boss for some employee control and say is seen as a precarious and unreliable means of protection. Many casuals want to see an improved floor of rights, along with their enforcement.
Many casuals work in fear of dismissal, assuming they do not have rights to contest unfair dismissal. Some do not know when they have been effectively dismissed: they wait for the call for a next shift that does not come.
The loss of respect and workplace citizenship - voice, communication, training, promotion, inclusion - emerge as very important aspects of casual work for workers.
Casual pay holds many hazards: for many it is variable by the week, and over the year. It is sometimes accompanied by long gaps, lacks minimum call in times and is drained by work expenses. Low hourly rates and under-classification mean that many casuals look to the casual loading to get them to a livable hourly rate. Their hourly rates are often lower than those they work alongside.
Most interviewees received the casual loading; a quarter did not or do not know what it is. Of those who receive it, the majority felt that the loading did not adequately compensate for the difference between being casual and being permanent.
Many casuals go to work sick. When they are sick they weigh up how sick, how injured, and how poor?. Illness is a moment of real hazard, putting health at risk and sometimes ongoing employment when they refuse work. Some do not get a second chance.
Some casuals can take a holiday when they want and value the flexibility highly. Many others have few holidays because they cannot get away, lack funds, or are fearful of not having a job when they return.
Casual work sometimes has positive effects on health, but more often it is mentioned as a negative: undermining self-esteem and contributing to worry and stress over money and predictable work. Some are depressed and, at the extreme, have suicidal thoughts. Casual workers often do not report injuries or find their hours cut if they do.
Casual work has effects beyond the individual. It affects children, partners, friendships, households and communities. Planning for events is difficult. In some cases it makes relationship formation difficult.
Trouble with financial planning, borrowing and saving for retirement are amongst the significant financial costs of casual work. Casual work leaches commitment to work and affects productivity as some casuals hang back from expressing their views at work or are excluded from contributing.
Many casuals would like to see better opportunities for conversion to permanency, access to paid sick and holiday leave, protection from repetitive rolling contracts, better protections from arbitrary dismissal, more respect and better terms for those employed through labour hire.
This is based on Only a casual? How casual work affects employees, households and communities in Australia, by Barbara Pocock, Rosslyn Prosser and Ken Bridge, can be downloaded from here.
'One small step for mothers: next please'
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 2004
Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that timing is important. Once you head down the road of maternity, you are timed at every stage - from conception to due date, through the stages of labour and against the baby weight charts in the months that follow.
So Australian mothers could be forgiven for impatience at the untimely late arrival of some real support on the birth of a new baby - something that approaches paid maternity leave. It has taken eighty-five years for a major Australian political party to back a paid maternity leave scheme that would take Australia close to the 1919 ILO recommendation. The ILO standard recognises that the physical act of maternity, and a fair go for women at work, require a period of paid rest for working mothers.
Almost one hundred years overdue, but better late than never, Labor?s proposed Baby Care Payment is an important step forward. It offers a payment to all eligible mothers that will eventually come close to 14 weeks at minimum wage - in 2010. You wouldn?t want to rush things after all.
A Baby Care Payment for most mothers ? with or without jobs - recognises that all mothers are working mothers. Many women go in and out of the labour market around their care responsibilities. There are no water-tight categories of 'women at home' versus 'women at work', but instead a growing population of women who - more often than not - hold down a job at the same time as they hold a baby. Their households depend on their earnings.
The proposed payment promises a very important support for the almost two million part-time Australian women - many of them low paid and casual with little chance of negotiating paid maternity leave for themselves. It would replace much or all of their earnings for a significant period.
The proposal has several other virtues. Firstly, it effectively replaces Howard's Baby Bonus - an expensive, regressive, badly timed policy disaster. Second, it puts the greatest benefit where it is most needed: into mother's pockets at the time of birth in households that need it most. It does so with minimal paper work, no tricky eligibility rules in relation to periods of employment, and some flexibility for mothers around when they get the payment.
The policy is a boon for two groups. Firstly, it is a windfall for the thousands of Australian businesses who do not offer paid maternity leave. Hopefully, this will leave them free to top up the basic government payment, or provide other supports like flexible return to work programs, secure part-time work or paid leave to care for sick dependents. Secondly, the proposal gives additional support to the lucky third of Australian women who already have some paid maternity leave (much of it very limited), extending the time that they can spend with newborns.
Make no mistake, however, this is a bargain basement proposal. For a great many women, it means a payment that is less than their usual earnings. It is a small but significant step forward in a national work/care regime that makes it tough to have kids and a job, and all too often valourises motherhood without backing it with real support.
Noone can say John Howard has not had time to respond to these issues. Instead he and his colleagues have backed bad policy and played political football with Australia's mothers. There is still plenty of time for him to catch up: childcare, workplace flexibility and secure, reasonable, parent-friendly working hours are still policy challenges out there begging for action.