You are in an archived section of the AIFS website. Archived publications may be of interest for historical reasons. Because of their age, they may not reflect current research data or AIFS' current research methodologies.

Family Matters No. 33 - December 1992

Families, work and industrial relations

Ilene Wolcott

Abstract

In this overview of changes to the familiar and traditional pathways to work and family life, the author notes that the prospect of full employment may be an illusion. If so, then alternative approaches to joblessness are necessary if people, especially the young (but also retirees), are to maintain their self-esteem as contributing members of the larger community. Work place changes that have already occurred, as well as those foreshadowed in new industrial relations legislation, have the capacity either to threaten hard-earned basic working conditions or provide increased opportunities to balance work, family and community life.

With growing numbers of Australian families confronting high unemployment within the current climate of economic insecurity, it is apt to remember Don Edgar's call in the December 1991 issue of Family Matters for government theorists and planners to emphasis 'economic humanism', not just rationalism, if we are to achieve the status of a true civil society'. As he says, under economic humanism 'the impact of policies and programs on human beings, not their efficiency or cost-benefits alone, would become the key "performance measures" of society'.

In addition to ensuring that all its members have an adequate minimum income, another aspect of a caring community is the contribution all members make to the wellbeing of others.

The restructuring of the employment system within the current volatile world economy presents, perhaps, an unforeseen opportunity to achieve a creative balance between work, family and community.

The prospect of full employment may be an illusion. If so, then alternative approaches to joblessness are necessary if people, especially the young (but also retirees), are to maintain their selfesteem as contributing members of the larger community.

In a statement at the National Family Summit last month, Don Edgar said: 'If we are to abandon or change the definition of full employment, perhaps we need to redefine 'work' itself and spread paid work around, pay a guaranteed minimum income, encourage community work for the common good, and recognise the value of unpaid work such as home-making and caring for others.' However, under the philosophy of economic rationalism, such 1 work' may not be considered costefficient, and such pathways closed to coming generations.

Honouring ILO Convention 156

During this time of industrial and economic turmoil, it is important to reaffirm Australia's commitment to the articles of ILO Convention 156 'Workers With Family Responsibilities'. Ratified by Australia in March 1990, the Convention commits signatory countries to enable men and women workers with family responsibilities to enter employment 'to the extent possible without conflict between their employment and family responsibilities'. Article 4 of the Convention requires (so far as national conditions permit) that account is taken 'of their needs in terms and conditions of employment and social security'.

At the National Family Summit last month, the Prime Minister affirmed that the two ma'in issues for Australia for the International Year of the Family would be workers with family responsibilities and family violence.

Other initiatives have already been taken. On the recommendation of the of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Equal Opportunity and Equal Status for Women in Australia (Lavarch Report), the Attorney- General's Department is exploring legislative options for explicitly protecting workers with family responsibilities from discrimination in employment. At the State level, Western Australia has put a bill before Parliament that will add 'family responsibilities' as a ground of unlawful discrimination to their Equal Opportunity Act.

Given trends in work and family organisation, new ways of working will affect both women and men who are likely to be employed in varying configurations of full- and parttime employment over the course of their lives. By choice as well as necessity, men and women will be sharing the earning of income and family caring.

Workplace changes that have already occurred, as well as those foreshadowed in new industrial relations legislation, have the capacity either to threaten hard-earned basic working conditions or provide increased opportunities to balance work, family and community life.

Enterprise-based bargaining and individual work contracts can either erode working conditions or support ILO Convention 156 by enabling employees to negotiate part-time work, job sharing, reduced hours, flexible hours, maternity paternity and parental leave and leave to care for sick family members, child care options and career breaks.

In the recently released ACTU publication Work and Family Issues: Guidelines for Enterprise Bargaining, lola Matthews summarises what some companies have already achieved through enterprisebased bargaining consistent with ILO Convention 156:

Australian Airlines and the Flight Attendants Association of Australia have negotiated an enterprise agreement that allows employees to take seven days a year for the care of immediate family members who are sick and an option to work half the normal working hours most suitable to meeting personal or family needs.

Mercantile Mutual Insurance has instituted an option for employees to work from home up to ten days a year if a special need such as short-term child care problems or family sickness makes it impossible for an employee to attend the office. The job must be suitable to be done from home and supervisor clearance obtained.

Qantas Information and Technology Ltd states in its Salaried Staff Award that 'the company may utilise the skills and experience of recently retired staff for the purpose of performing specific functions of limited duration'.

Shell Australia, in recognising that family and personal emergencies can be unpredictable, has instituted a policy encouraging supervisors to give employees paid short-term release from duties in return for employees giving a greater work commitment to the company from time to time to meet peak work demands.

On the other hand, surveys of large and small employers in Australia reveal ambivalent attitudes towards workers with family responsibilities and what an employer's role should be. For the most part, women (not men) are still regarded as the proper beneficiaries of alternative work patterns such as job sharing or reduced hours. Family leave benefits and time off for family needs are more often considered to be an earned privilege for perceived commitment and loyalty to a company than an employee right, with supervisors, not employees, deciding what time off is necessary and allowed.

Although a few 'leading edge' employers now include the management of work and family concerns as part of management performance appraisals, work and family issues are not generally high on the list of topics in managemerit training courses.

Effects of Changes?

We all have to accept that the familiar and traditional pathways to work and family life are undergoing dramatic change. The key to whether employee relations bills, such as that introduced in Victoria last month, promote fairness and equality in the workplace and a 'civil society' depends on how, under such legislation, families are able to meet their needs for both income security and family caregiving. Also important is how legislation will affect young people embarking on work careers and older people leaving paid work. Will they have the opportunity to be contributing members of a caring community?