The Guardian March 20, 2002


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.

Back to index page