Work life research

There have been two major policy pieces about work and life in Australia recently.  Each one recommending some change, but not especially effectively, judging by the results so far.

It’s about Time – a project by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) examining the interactions between family responsibilities and paid work. It makes the case for a new framework to support the balance between family responsibilities and paid work. It’s wide ranging, and an encouraging read. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the government paying much attention to them. The recommendations are wide ranging, and cover things like gathering data (so we know what’s really going on), changing the rules about standard leave, improving preschool education, and changing the way in which family payments work. Among its recommendations that particularly caught my attention:

  • That the Australian Government establish a grants program to assist businesses to increase the number of senior and quality jobs that are available part time. This initiative would supply matched funding to businesses and voluntary organisations for projects designed to embed quality part time work in their organisations. 
  • That the Australian Government as a matter of priority introduce a national, government funded scheme of paid maternity leave of 14 weeks at the level of the federal minimum wage 
  • That Family Tax Benefit Part B be modified to support couple families to share paid work and care and Australia move towards a system of progressive individual income tax in which child benefits are provided on a universal basis. 
  • That State and Territory governments introduce a scheme of financial incentives for primary and secondary schools to introduce outside school hours activities with the aim of enabling all schools to be able to offer education and care to school aged children under the age of 16 during the hours of 8 am – 6 pm.

There is a plethora of recommendations. Many of them are of the “more study is needed” type. But reading them, they didn’t seem especially focused on things that were likely to happen any time soon. The paid maternity leave campaign from Pru Goward – a single policy prescription, pushed hard, with supporting evidence about why it made sense – seemed to me to have a better chance of success – certainly got the issue out on the table. This report seemed to have too many nice-to-have suggestions, so that the meaty ones were likely to get lost in the mass.

The second policy piece was from the Family and Human Services Committee of the Federal lower house – chaired by Bronwyn Bishop. The report is here – titled Balancing Work and Family. It too has a lot of recommendations. They are much more timid, but also much more likely to actually be implemented, so probably worth paying more attention to.

There is very little in the recommendations about helping employers be more family friendly – it is much more about making childcare cheaper to those who use it – extending the range of childcare options that count for the various benefits now available, and suggesting that childcare be tax deductible, and that fringe benefits tax be removed from work provided childcare.

While they seem to me to be largely sensible recommendations (particularly the fringe benefits one – the current rules that only allow tax free workplace childcare if it’s actually owned by the employer are ridiculously biased in favour of large employers), it’s a shame that there is very little on encouraging employers into more flexibility. The nod in that direction is that the government should continue to monitor the experience of overseas countries which mandate more employer flexibility (e.g. the UK, which has recently required companies to offer a “right to request” part time work).

The more I read and think about work life balance – what needs to change to make it easier for families to choose ways to manage their work and life that gives a good balance to both, the more I think that we’ve reached the point that it is really work that needs to change. And that is incredibly patchy. If you’re lucky enough to be in an industry in which there is a “war for talent”, then you may be able to write your own ticket. But if not, then we are relying on the government to supply policy settings that push employers in the direction of recognising that their employers are people who are part of families, and have responsibilities, as well as desire, to have a life outside of the workplace. And those government settings are, with the advent of Work Choices, going away from requiring employers to do anything at all flexible for their employees.