Young women paying for employer fear: Goward


Young women paying for employer fear: Goward

Some small business employers had already stopped hiring young women for fear that they would have to pay them maternity leave, federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward told a Sydney audience today.


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Some small business employers had already stopped hiring young women for fear that they would have to pay them maternity leave, federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward told a Sydney audience today.

Goward told delegates to the Macquarie Graduate School of Management's Women, Management & Employment Relations conference that employers had told her this at the numerous public consultations she had held around the country after the release of her paid maternity leave options paper in April (see 102/2002).

Goward reiterated that she, the Government, the Democrats and employers were not advocating it. Employer funding of a paid maternity leave scheme was overwhelmingly the major concern raised in consultations, she said, but as she had outlined in her options paper, it was not the desirable scheme. 'Recognising it as an industrial entitlement does not mean employers have to pay.'

Goward said she didn't support it because it was 'a third-world scheme', and even the International Labour Organisation, 'not normally seen as employer-friendly', did not recommend it because of possible ramifications.

'Employers kept telling us women would suffer under this scheme - I was told they've already begun avoiding employing young women, and it ain't here yet.

'The last thing you want is one form of discrimination being replaced by a much worse one.'

One of a range of considerations

Another issue raised during consultations, which Goward branded 'a sleeper', was the issue of fathers accessing paid leave.

She emphasised that paid maternity leave was just one of a range of options that should be considered to make life easier for families, with the child's rights to time with its parents being the prime consideration.

Goward said that in a time when Australia's fertility rate was rapidly falling below replacement rates, while the question of whether a limited period of paid leave would encourage women to have children was undecided, the real issue was that women were delaying having children. A period of paid leave could help them stop delaying having children, she said, and could make the difference about whether they were ultimately able to become pregnant, far less likely as a woman got older.

And she said while 15-20% of women chose to have no children, and another 15-20% chose not to work, the Government should be providing choices to the majority who chose to do both. She said while it was not necessary to agree with the choices women were making, the Government needed a suite of measures to suit all women.

'Paid maternity leave is a component of that, but you can't get much balance going if you can't first recover from the birth of your child.'

Goward said paid leave would also help halt the drain of highly-skilled women into lower-skilled jobs with better hours and shifts for mothers - like retail and hospitality.

The submission process

Goward received more than 200 submissions in three months, and said she and her staff of four or five must now begin the work of reading every one and pulling out common threads. She is committed to reporting to the Government by December.

Goward said she expected that one or two issues would be common to all submissions - for example, 'there was hardly anybody who didn't say paid maternity leave was only one part of the bigger issue' - many had asked about return to work and related matters.

She said there was also disagreement on how the entitlement should be paid. While some private sector schemes required workers to hand back money if they didn't return to work, she said there was no reason a public scheme should require this.

There was also the issue of discrimination against women who weren't in paid employment.

The NZ experience

Goward's observations had also been part of the experience in New Zealand, which introduced 12 weeks' paid parental leave from this month (see 301/2001). The head of NZ's Equal Opportunities Commission, Trudie McNaughton, addressed the conference on the negotiations leading up to paid maternity leave in that country on behalf of the Minister for Women, also the Labour Minister, Laila Harre, who could not appear because of tomorrow's NZ election.

She said the process had been 'blood, sweat and tears then and it's blood, sweat and tears now'. But McNaughton said she was convinced there would have been 'far greater opposition if we'd just been talking about paid maternity leave'. In NZ, the paid parental leave entitlement goes to the mother, who can then transfer it to either the child's father or her same-sex partner, as long as they are eligible.

McNaughton said most of the discussion in NZ had not centred around objections to paid leave, but questions as to why certain groups - the self-employed, women who had not worked for the same employer for 12 months and so on - had been excluded.

The Government has committed to a review of the scheme after 12 months, and she said at that stage it is expected that both the level and period of payment will be extended, as well as the groups of those eligible.


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