Flexible Workers, Inflexible Work
The Real Cost of Economic Rationalist Childcare Policies
by Bob Briton There is mounting evidence that a breaking point is looming in the lives of Australia's working people. In the past month alone, three significant reports gave details of the precipitous decline in standards encountered by Australians at work and their social consequences. Not surprisingly, the course of this deterioration coincides precisely with the agenda for reshaping society according to the economic rationalist model. Recently, the Smart Casual Association released its report on the deplorable conditions facing young casual workers who now make up 44 percent of young people in employment. The ACTU has sponsored a study entitled Fifty Families which goes into great detail about the effects on the lives of families of the excessive hours currently being worked in Australia. Another in this string of thoroughly researched investigations is that by Dr John Buchanan and Dr Louise Thornwaite. Their report for Chifley Research Foundation is entitled Paid Work and Parenting: Charting a new course for Australian families and suggests some remedies for the parlous state of childcare and parental leave provisions for Australian workers. Origins of the Crisis The report puts the blame for the current disastrous situation squarely where it belongs. "In the 1980's and 1990's Australia rapidly restructured key institutions to meet the challenges of increased internationalisation of the economy. It is now clear that these changes came at significant social cost." The emphasis in industrial relations policy, for example, shifted away from the assumptions of the Harvester Decision of 1907 (which said that pay and conditions of work should be sufficient to maintain a married man and his family) to one where the only ultimate consideration is the individual enterprise's capacity to pay a return to shareholders. This "enterprise as an island" approach has been the dream of the bosses from the very beginnings of capitalism and they now have it! This report shows that twice as many workers are dissatisfied than are satisfied with trends in the workplace and in particular how this impacts on the care of children. As if to underline the anti-democratic nature of contemporary industrial relations, hardly any of the Certified Agreements, Australian Workplace Agreements and Enterprise Bargaining Agreements have "family friendly" provisions for childcare or parental leave. In times of "economic downturn" (and isn't that all the time for workers) such provisions are even less likely to appear on the enterprise agenda. In fact "by January 1998, approximately 2.6 percent of federal awards and agreements contained clauses that mentioned child care, and these were almost entirely concentrated in the public sector." The truth is that workers' expectations of their bosses have gone down. The authors state that if any remedy is envisaged by the majority of workers to their present predicament, their expectation is that it will come from governments. But the Federal Government's decision in the Budget of 1996/97 to cease operational subsidies to community-based long day care centres and Out of School Hours Care, shows the Government is abandoning its role in this area, also. The "Family Tax Initiative", which was meant to compensate and provide "choice", went nowhere towards meeting the extra costs imposed on parents by the changes. The measures further reduced their options as many community based childcare facilities simply went under. The limiting of eligibility for rebates on fees compounded the problems facing parents. The wash up Australia is one of only three countries in the world not to have nationally legislated provision for paid parental leave. The other two are the USA and Ethiopia. The overwhelming majority of Australian workplaces are in violation of the ILO minimum standard of 12 weeks maternity leave on two thirds pay. However, the damage flowing from this neglect is not limited to the national reputation. The report goes into considerable detail as to the consequences of the family "unfriendly" work environments we now have. Workers fear disapproval for using what limited parental leave is available. Many have chosen careers and avoided promotions because the added responsibilities won't allow for family commitments. Many careers don't survive a break for child rearing. Women, especially, are in casualised segments of industry where a sudden absence to look after a sick child can have dire consequences on employment. Most parents would have had the experience of using up all other forms of leave, including annual leave, to look after sick children. Most disturbing is the reported increase in the incidence of sick children being left at home alone. Around 10 percent of children aged 6-13 look after themselves during school holidays. The trail of damage left by uncertain work arrangements can be traced back to the fact that economic rationalist economic policies have delivered flexible workers, not flexible work (as was promised). While workers were told to look forward to flexible arrangements which could be used to meet the various requirements of family life, the reality is either too much work or too little, often unpredictable and almost inevitably so in the sphere of casual work. The ultimate result is increased family dysfunction with a huge cost to be met further down the line. One size does not fit all The propagandists of flexible work arrangements were onto something, however. While countries like Australia pretend that nothing has changed since 1907, the statistics paint a very different picture. Over 15 percent of families now have only one parent, 71 percent of these have dependents. Only 47 percent of the remainder fit into the "traditional" model of the male breadwinner employed full-time with dependents. Even in this category, 26 percent of the spouses are also employed full-time and 35 percent on a part-time basis. The picture is further complicated when looking at the issue of childcare by the different "parenting phases" identified in the report. Parents have different needs for breaks from work, childcare, leave and flexibility of work hours according to the ages of their children. The key brackets are: * at birth, aged up to five years; * 5-12 years and; * over twelve years. The younger the child concerned, the more intensive the care required and the greater the need for flexible work arrangements.But these are not the very real issues of flexibility that are getting attention in the globalised economy. While most women currently working part-time want to keep working for economic reason and for reasons of satisfaction, most of them would prefer fewer hours. Men in full-time employment, while not rushing to take extended periods of paid or unpaid leave to be at home with children, are all but unanimous in their opposition to working hours expanding beyond 40 per week as is happening at present. Only a very small elite group of women seems to be benefiting in certain senses from current trends. They are professionals who take very short breaks and who get sizeable sweeteners from their employers to stay at their highly paid jobs. No doubts about low quality child care and a lack of help at home need bother them. Scouring the world for models The rest of us are left to deal with yet another feature of the essentially undemocratic nature of the world of work under capitalism. The authors of the report went to great lengths to compare the experience of countries comparable to Australia. The USA, the UK and much of Europe show similar outcomes regardless of the greater or lesser lip service to the principles of "family friendliness". Only the Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Norway in particular, seem to have demonstrated real credibility in the area of parenting leave. Even here, however, a reaction against child care-related issues indicates the reassertion of the bosses' point of view in matters related to work. Elsewhere, in isolated pockets, there are examples of more progressive employers that have benefited themselves and their workers by turning over the rostering of the work to their workers. This has turned out to be family friendly and bottom line friendly. Workers are more productive and the number of shifts is increased. Class power The direct question of class power and how it relates to the control of the work process were outside the brief of the authors of the report for the Chifley Foundation. The study draws upon surveys among hundreds of thousands of respondents and gives clear suggestions for ways out the present crisis. Few workers would argue with the proposals. The "Lifestyle Choice" alternative would include coordinated public policy responses in legislation to improve parental leave, increased access to non-standard hours (like the above mentioned "Employee Choice Rostering Schemes"), job sharing, career breaks, increased involvement of men in parenting, support for not-for-profit child care and day care and new forms of household assistance for working parents. To flesh out the public policy required, new information on the nature of the problems needs to be gathered and a sub-committee of Cabinet needs to be brought together. Going beyond the scope of the study, the labour movement needs to consider the task of wresting power from the capitalist class and reorder the priorities of the economy away from private profit and greed and towards social need. The report identifies the need for change very well. Only when there is a permanent shift in political power to the working class will we be assured that such basic needs will be met on a society- wide basis and with security. Workers need to take control of more than just the roster!