Caring work and unpaid informal caring are crucial to the social and economic fabric of Australia. ABS research in 2012 shows there are 2.7 million people providing informal unpaid care to older people, people with a disability, and people with a health problem. 56% are women, and 20% are 55-64. 18.5% of Australians have a disability. 1.4 million have a profound or severe limitation of mobility, self-care or communication (ABS 4430 2012).
Providing unpaid care has a significant impact on carers’ workforce participation, particularly for women, who are much more likely than men to be primary carers throughout the course of their lives. Many women work part time or casually, to accommodate caring. 46% of women employees work part time and 53% of part time employees are casual (ABS 6333 2014). Part time and casual work often involve considerable workforce disadvantage, in progression, job security and remuneration, and in retirement incomes.
Flexible working arrangements are central to working carers’ attempts to combine work and care. The Australian Workplace Relations Study 2012 found that just over a quarter of employees had requested a flexible work arrangement, with a higher incidence of requests among women. A Victorian survey (ABS 6210.2) found that ¾ requests were approved. The main reasons for requesting flexible arrangements were to have more family time, or financial reasons (16% each), followed by childcare and leisure and travel (each 11%). Over half of those whose reason was childcare requested flexible work hours or work location, while 1/3 requested reduced hours or leave.
The right to request flexible-working arrangements in the National Employment Standards is provided for employees with children under school age, carers, employees with a disability, employees over 55, employees experiencing family violence, or employees providing care or support to an immediate family member who is experiencing family violence. The employer may only refuse the request on “reasonable business grounds”. It does not, however, include any practical right to appeal an employer’s unreasonable refusal to consider the request. Eligibility for this request is also limited to workers with 12 months service with their employer.
The extent to which employees and employers are unaware of the right to request, and the extent to which the right to request is genuinely available and properly considered, are unknown although the Australian Workplace Relations Study 2012 did survey employees on why they had not requested flexible work arrangements, and further information may be forthcoming.
Casuals have no entitlements to paid annual or personal/carers’ leave, irrespective of how many hours they work or how long they have been with the employer. Loadings provide some compensation, although the extent to which the loadings fully compensate employees for the foregone leave. Current attacks on penalty rates would jeopardise even the current level of compensation. In some areas of employment, including higher education, schools and public service, there are provisions for transfer from casual or fixed term employment to permanent employment.
Some permanent part timers are employed under awards that allow significant fluctuation in the number and scheduling of their hours, a situation more like casual work, and without security of income or time organisation.
Some awards and agreements already include provisions for domestic and family violence leave. The ACTU has a claim underway in the Fair Work Commission, as part of the four yearly review of modern awards, for domestic and family violence leave among other matters related to flexible working arrangement, dealing with the National Employment Standards and with allowable award matters in these areas.
At the same time, 25% of male workers work over 50 hours a week (ABS 6333 2014), despite the National Employment Standards provision of a 38 hour maximum, with additional reasonable overtime. There is a requirement to consider family responsibilities in deciding whether overtime is reasonable. The high prevalence of very long hours working for men undermines equitable sharing of paid and unpaid work by women and men, and disadvantages women in the workforce, including in remuneration and job security.
Culturally and linguistically diverse women and migrant women are often in vulnerable positions as workers, both in Australia and to a greater extent throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. They tend to be more concentrated in low paid, part time, and/or casual work, with limited opportunities to progress.
1. The National Employment Standards and modern award protections should be strengthened and maintained by:
- Increasing job security by providing for casual workers to move to an ongoing contract after 12 months of regular employment
- Retaining current penalty rates in all modern awards
- Establishing firm working time minima, including a minimum engagement of four hours for casual and part-time workers
- Enhancing the operation and uptake of the right to request flexible working arrangements by:
- Removing the 12 month service requirement for eligibility
- Requiring that employers reasonably accommodate requests for flexible work by providing a right to appeal refusals as applies to other National Employment Standards
- Developing and disseminating detailed guidance material on the right to request flexible working arrangements and initiating a Fair Work Ombudsman campaign to raise awareness of this right
- Providing for paid domestic violence leave and for paid leave for palliative care
- Restricting maximum weekly hours of work to 38 hours except by mutual agreement and requiring written agreement to a regular pattern of hours and written agreement to and adequate notice of changes to hours for part-time workers
2. The Government should announce its intention to ratify the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, incorporate its provisions in domestic legislation, and proceed to ratification.