Paid maternity leave — about time!
Only two industrialised countries in the world do not offer women paid maternity leave. Australia holds one of those disgraceful positions alongside, not surprisingly, the United States. However, in the wake of International Women's day 2002, forces are gathering to overturn one of our great social injustices. "Australia's record in delivering fairness to women in 2002 is a poor one: 70 per cent of Australian women workers have no access to paid maternity leave", said Australian Council of Trade Unions President Sharan Burrow. Ms Burrow was launching the ACTU campaign for Australia to ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention. The Convention, adopted by the ILO in June 2000, sets minimum paid maternity leave at 14 weeks. The Convention also provides for: * six weeks "compulsory" leave after childbirth; * benefits to be paid in cash benefits at a level which ensures the woman can maintain herself and her child — not less than two-thirds of the woman's previous earnings; * that the government should make the payments, either directly from public funds or through employer payments into a compulsory social insurance fund. In Australia, just three of 1866 Federal Awards reach the standard of the ILO minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. Though the ALP has come out strongly to support the issue of paid maternity leave, some details of its policy are yet to be clarified. "Labor should make families its top priority", said Labor spokesperson for Family and Community Services, Wayne Swan. "I believe a good start would be with paid maternity leave. There will be issues about the cost... and who pays for it but we shouldn't let this get in the way of adopting the policy itself." Labor also, while acknowledging the ILO standard of 14 weeks, makes no commitment on that point. Deputy ALP leader Jenny Macklin added, "The Howard Government argued that the Workplace Relations Act would enable workers to reconcile work and family responsibilities but few enterprise agreements — and even fewer AWAs — contain work-family provisions". "Put simply, the right to paid maternity leave is not being achieved through enterprise bargaining. In fact, the deregulation of the labour market has meant that previous entitlements to paid maternity leave can be removed, particularly where awards are being simplified." Senator Stott Despoja said the Democrats were strongly committed to a basic level of maternity leave, and arrived much closer to the ILO mark than Labor. Though not quite reaching to the 14-week standard, Senator Stott Despoja said the existing maternity allowance should be replaced with a 12-week payment at the minimum wage rate. And, jumping over Labor's "who pays for what and how" dilemma, she said the scheme should be paid by the government and could be funded by taxing trusts as companies. On the other hand the Federal Government, which has resolutely refused to ratify the ILO Convention, completely ignored the issue of paid maternity leave last week, instead launching its "Baby Bonus" Bill. When presenting the legislation, Treasurer Peter Costello announced, "This Government has always believed in supporting Australian families", and to demonstrate that support the Bill would offer "a tax break of up to $2,500 a year". However, this inherently flawed legislation does not provide anything for mothers who wish to return to work, but rather pays women to stay away from work. And of course, the $2500 a year is only available to women on the highest incomes — over $55,000 per annum. Those earning under $20,000 — the ones who need it most — will only get a safety-net amount of $500. While women in 21st century Australia are still fighting for paid maternity leave, we can remember the extent of workers' rights in the former socialist Soviet Union, where women were offered: * 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, eight before delivery and eight after; * maternity leave to be extended as required by circumstances — difficult pregnancy, baby born with serious illness, etc.; * reduced working hours for new mothers for one year after birth; * jobs to be held open for three years for a woman who chose to stay home with the child during its infancy; * mother to be paid leave to look after sick children — no annual limit; *all medical check-ups pre- and post-natal allowed as sick leave with pay; * creches in all factories and workplaces, regular breaks and rooms for nursing mothers to be provided. Most of these ground-breaking conditions were articulated as early as the Party Program of 1917! In light of that, the fact that working women's' rights continued to be denied in a 21st-century, wealthy, industrialised nation like Australia is nothing less than shameful.