Halliday 'won't be quiet' on pregnancy changes

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Halliday 'won't be quiet' on pregnancy changes

She joked with the delegates that, when looking for a name for the report, she had wanted to call it 'Keep pushing, it’s almost there'. She had reconsidered, not only because the Attorney-General’s Department hadn’t liked it but because 'we’re nowhere near almost there'.

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The federal Government can expect a showdown with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner it appointed if, as expected, it fails to act on recommendations she made in a report on pregnancy discrimination at work.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner Susan Halliday told a Sydney conference on HR law that she was still waiting on a Government reply to the 46 recommendations (including 11 legislative changes) she had made in her report 13 months ago.

This was despite industry support and a Private Member’s Bill put by the ALP’s Jenny Macklin, which had the full support of the Democrats. Halliday told WorkplaceInfo she had put on hold guidelines she had been writing for employers on the issue pending a Government response.

When asked at the conference whether she would be satisfied or disappointed with the Government’s expected response to her recommendations, she said: 'I’m not going to be satisfied, and I’m not going to be quiet.'

Halliday, who worked for many years with BHP, said if the Government told her it wasn’t going ahead with the changes because industry wouldn’t like it, she would be demanding to know its basis for saying that, as she had deliberately ensured she had industry support when drafting the recommendations.

Halliday told conference delegates her report had found female workers were most at risk of pregnancy discrimination in a deregulated work environment. The phenomenal rates of casualisation in this country, which put Australia second only to Spain in the OECD (26.9% of Australian workers are casual employees, and 60% of those are women), made for 'a debilitating environment for many, many women', she said.

Refused for bank loans, unable to take even unpaid maternity leave, these women were at the whim of agreements like the Australian Workplace Agreement she had seen which called for 12 months’ notice of maternity leave. 'So if you conceive tonight, you’re already three months too late,' she said, before adding that she had run it past 60 heads of employer organisations and one had told her he 'didn’t have a problem with that'.

She found such attitudes disturbing. 'Everyone holds their own beliefs, and it’s usually about your pregnancy, but that’s not their business in a public environment like employment', she said.

Halliday’s report highlights the levels of misinformation among employers and workers alike. She said that in talks to schools she was shocked to find that schoolgirls of working age knew about pregnancy discrimination 'because Amanda in Melrose Place was to be sacked from DVD Advertising because she was pregnant'.

She said if US soaps were not to be Australians’ only source of information, local workplaces must become better informed about women’s rights and employer responsibilities during workers’ pregnancies.

She warned employers that pre-employment pregnancy testing was almost never legally sanctioned (for example, it had been permissible in the lead industry, but even there the exemption had lapsed - 'which is silly of the lead industry because I used to work at BHP and I know how hard that [exemption] was to get').

She said if employers’ doctors had done pregnancy tests without being asked as part of pre-employment screening, employers should 'send it back and get the files redone', as there was no way to white out the part where the pregnancy test results had been if a discrimination case later arose.

And she warned of other dangers, like that rare employer who had decided to hire a woman even though it had received a positive pregnancy test result for her. The woman was stunned when she was congratulated on both the job and the baby – which she knew nothing about.

Halliday encouraged delegates to read the Finance Sector Union’s recent report on family-friendly rhetoric versus reality. She said the situations talked about in the survey, whereby women were unable to take advantage of family-friendly policies for fear of being marked throughout their career, were common.

Stories of women having babies on accrued annual leave or long-service leave instead of maternity leave were common, she said, so that their records remained clear of any connection with children, which could hold them back later on. And she knew personally about family-friendly rhetoric, as evidenced by a complaint in her in-tray about a company that had simultaneously won a family-friendly award.

She joked with the delegates that, when looking for a name for the report, she had wanted to call it 'Keep pushing, it’s almost there'. She had reconsidered, not only because the Attorney-General’s Department hadn’t liked it but because 'we’re nowhere near almost there'.

The report, 'Pregnant and Productive: It's a right not a privilege to work while pregnant', is on the HREOC website at: http://www.hreoc.gov.au

 

 

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