Parental leave in Australia


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Content type
Family Matters article

November 1990


The Australian Industrial Relations Commission's recent ruling on a parental leave test case mounted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), decided on a package of leave and part-time employment for both parents involved with the birth or adoption of a child. The Commission granted fathers the right to 52 weeks unpaid leave thereby giving male employees the opportunity of being the primary care-giver of the child. The Australian Institute of Family Studies' support for the parental leave ruling is discussed along with a discussion of the ramifications of parental leave and part- time employment for employers and breast-feeding mothers.

AIFS Fellow, Helen Glezer, discusses some of the ramifications of the ruling of the Industrial Relations Commission to grant 12 months paternity leave to men, in recognition of the fact that the care of children is the responsibility of both parents

Two recent events have focused attention on the needs of parents in the workforce. On 2 March 1990, the Federal Government ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 156, Workers with Family Responsibilities, Article 3 of which states:

With a view to creating effective equality of opportunity and treatment for men and women workers, each Member shall make it an aim of national policy to enable persons with family responsibilities who are engaged or wish to engage in employment to exercise their right to do so without being subject to discrimination and, to the extent possible without conflict between their employment and family responsibilities.

Then, in a historical decision last August, the Industrial Relations Commission in ruling on the parental leave test case mounted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), decided on a package of leave and part-time work for both parents involved with the birth or adoption of a child. The decision to grant twelve months paternity leave to men is in line with ILO Convention 156. As The Age editorial on 27 July said: 'For the first time, the right - as well as the responsibility - of men to be involved in the care of young children has been enshrined in industrial law.'

In its decision in this case, the Industrial Relations Commission has recognised that paternity leave is a legitimate industrial issue. It has granted fathers the right to 52 weeks unpaid leave, one week being available at the time of the birth, and the remaining 51 weeks to be taken up to the child's first birthday to give male employees the opportunity of being the primary care-giver of the child.

This means that the total amount of leave a family can take after the birth or adoption of a child is 52 weeks. In addition, the Bench granted the right to part-time employment with the consent of the employer up to the child's second birthday. Parents will therefore be able to combine leave entitlements with part-time work to enable them to share child care responsibilities in the first two years.

Briefly, the ACTU's claim in the Parental Leave case was for 52 weeks unpaid leave for both parents up to the child's second birthday, thus giving fathers the right to paternity leave similar to the maternity and adoption leave provisions available to women in the private sector. The ACTU had requested that three weeks of that leave be made available immediately after the birth as 'short paternity leave', with the remainder being available at a time of the employee's choice as extended paternity leave. The ACTU claim included provisions which would have allowed parents who qualified for parental leave to work part-time for a period of up to two years from the birth of a child. While the ACTU did not gain all they had asked for in the test case, paternity leave was granted, including a week at the time of the birth, and the right to part-time work for parents during the first two years.

The Confederation of Australian Industries (CAI) opposed the claim for paternity leave and, as an alternative, proposed a general broadening of award provisions relating to part- time employment. The employer groups were critical of the Commission, because of the extra administrative and financial burden they saw as being placed on employers.

AIFS Support for Paternal Leave

The Australian Institute of Family Studies supported the broad principles of the ACTU's claim in the Parental Leave case, which it sees as being in line with ILO Convention 156. The Institute believes that the costs of parental leave to employers will be low because of the small annual proportion of the workforce experiencing the birth of a child, and that such costs as there are will be outweighed by the advantages to employers. Representing the Institute, Don Edgar and Helen Glezer appeared before the Commission to provide information to assist the Commission in making its decision in this case.

The Institute has long believed there was a need for parental leave on both equity and economic grounds.

The Institute believes that parenting is a shared responsibility, and men should be entitled to share that responsibility if they choose to do so, just as women should have equal opportunities in employment. The introduction of parental leave will enable men to share responsibility for children, and it will help women combine child-rearing and workforce participation.

Given that women are participating more in higher education and slowly extending into all segments of the labour market (they currently make up 41 per cent of the workforce), and given the need to improve productivity in Australia, the Institute believes it is necessary that women's skills be retained in the workforce after child-bearing. As Australia enters the 1990s with the prospect of a decline in the numbers entering the workforce, due to the falling birthrate and the increase in retention rates in education, working conditions which assist the retention of women in the workforce should be supported.

Demographic realities

Forty-two per cent of women in the workforce and 40.5 per cent of men in the workforce have dependent children (ABS 1988), but up until now there has been no legislative recognition that both male and female workers have family responsibilities.

There has been a consistent trend over recent decades towards increased female workforce participation - women with dependent children constitute the main growth area in the labour force at the present time. However, the majority of employed men with dependent children (97 per cent) are in full-time employment compared with 43.5 per cent of employed women with dependent children, a sure indication that the issue of workers with family responsibilities is not a 'women's issue' but an issue that affects male employees as well. Seventeen per cent of men in the labour force have one or more children aged 0-4 years compared with 13 per cent of all women in the labour force.

In Australia, there has been a decline in the fertility rate in recent decades. In 1971, the fertility rate was 2.95, in 1988 it had fallen to 1.84. According to McDonald (1989), if Australian fertility rates follow those in similar countries it is likely that it will drop further (Canada 1.67 in 1985, England and Wales 1.77 in 1986). This decline plus the increased retention rates in education up to age 25 years suggest that even with large-scale migration there will be a decline in the numbers of young people entering the workforce during the 1990s. Therefore, for economic reasons, the retention of women in the workforce after childbirth needs to be encouraged.

Potential Impact of Parental Leave

In their submissions to the Industrial Relations Commission, the ACTU and the Commonwealth suggested that take-up of long-term parental leave by males was likely to be low. However, perhaps what is more important is that those potentially eligible for leave will also be a small proportion of the workforce. Research has shown that maternity leave is not a major problem for employers (Glezer 1989, Daniel 1981); parental leave also is unlikely to be a problem.

Currently, there are around 240,000 births per year in Australia. It is estimated that 10 per cent of women giving birth are not in a relationship, that three-quarters of fathers are employed in the private sector (approximately 15 per cent of these being casual workers and 24 per cent self- employed), and that around 10 per cent of fathers are unemployed, students or retired.

On the basis of these figures it is estimated that (excluding meeting the eligibility criteria for parental leave) 90,500, or 4 per cent of men employed in the private sector would be potentially eligible for parental or paternity leave annually.

This would mean that in an organisation employing 100 male employees, four employees annually would be eligible for parental leave. This in turn would mean that for a small business of ten male employees, an employer would be likely to have an employee eligible for parental leave once every two to three years. (These are crude estimates which will vary according to the age structure of the workforce.)

Short paternity leave at the time of the birth

The Institute's Maternity Leave study data show that 59 per cent of men took some leave at the time of their child's birth. On the basis of these figures, an annual 1.8 per cent of men employed in the private sector would take some short leave at the time of birth of their child. So an employer with 55 male employees would be likely to have one employee take short-term parental leave annually. For a small business of ten male employees, an employer would be likely to experience an employee taking short-term parental leave once every five years.

However, as the leave is unpaid, this is no doubt an overestimate. In the Maternity Leave study, of men who took some form of leave, only 12 per cent took unpaid time off, 16 per cent took parental/paternity leave, 10 per cent special paid leave, and 5 per cent sick leave. The majority took some recreation leave (60 per cent). (It should be noted that on the Institute study questionnaire this was a multiple choice question, and it is possible that fathers reported several types of leave.)

There has been an increasing trend for fathers to be present during labour and at the birth, which suggests fathers are likely to require some time directly associated with the birth. A small Institute survey of ten private and ten public hospitals throughout Melbourne found that in all cases over 90 per cent of fathers attend the birth of their child.

The Institute's Maternity Leave study found that around 60 per cent of men take leave after the first or second birth, but that this drops to 40 per cent of those who have a third or later child. As the fertility rate is 1.84, it is likely that this short-term leave will be taken more than once by men with dependent children.

Twelve per cent of fathers who took leave took one to two days, 32 per cent took three to five days, 33 per cent took six to ten days and the remaining 23 per cent took eleven or more days. Leave at the time of the birth was more likely to be taken by those with higher incomes, and those with higher incomes were also more likely to take more days off.

Parental leave other than at the time of birth

In Australia, as in other countries where parental leave is available, take-up is low. According to information from Statistics Sweden (1985): 'In married families where both parents are gainfully employed, 22 per cent of fathers of children born in 1981 took paid leave of absence for care of children during the first year after the birth.'

Assuming that this level of leave taken during the first year after a birth was reached in Australia (an unlikely prospect as the proposed leave is unpaid), and if we have 46 per cent of parents both in employment prior to the birth (based on Institute maternity leave data), this would mean that approximately 0.28 per cent of the private sector male workforce would be affected. This translates into one employee annually for an employer with 360 male employees.

Breastfeeding as an issue

The Institute believes that it is only at the time of the birth and throughout the breastfeeding period that, in the interests of the health of mother and child, women should have special entitlements. Apart from this period, it would seem equitable that any additional leave should be available to both parents.

The Institute's Maternity Leave Study found that breastfeeding was a major factor in whether or not women returned to work, with 46 per cent of women who did not go back to work giving breastfeeding as the reason. Breastfeeding not only determines if women return to work, but when they are likely to do so. According to recent research (Manderson 1989), in the mid-1980s around 85 per cent of women breastfeed initially, with around 60 per cent still breastfeeding at three months, 45 per cent at six months and between 10-20 per cent at twelve months. Middle-class Australian women are more likely than women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, women from non- English-speaking backgrounds, and Aboriginal women to breastfeed infants throughout the first year. According to Professor Manderson, this is mainly due to economic factors: 'The lowest rates of breastfeeding tend to occur amongst recent immigrants, who are typically also employed in poorly paid and unskilled occupations.'

Preliminary data from an Institute study on child care (sample size 611) conducted by Gay Ochiltree has found that 85 per cent of women breastfed their child in 1984. Of these, 29 per cent did so for up to three months, 19 per cent for four to six months, 15 per cent for seven to nine months, 19 per cent for ten to twelve months, 16 per cent for one to two years, and 2 per cent breastfed their child for longer than two years.

In a small telephone survey of Infant Welfare Centres in Melbourne conducted recently by the Institute, it was found that women in low income areas tend to breastfeed less, and infant welfare sisters associate this with return to employment. Women are encouraged to try to keep up some feeds, but many find this difficult. The availability of flexible working hours and part-time work is likely to assist women to continue breastfeeding and at the same time be in employment earning an income.

The Nutrition Task Force for the Better Health Commission has set a target that by the year 2000, 95 per cent of women should be breastfeeding their infants on discharge from hospital, with 80 per cent continuing to do so by the end of three months (Manderson 1989). The introduction of part-time maternity leave will make it easier for women to continue breastfeeding after they return to employment, and should therefore increase the incidence in breastfeeding in the future.

Optional part-time leave as part of parental leave

The Institute's Maternity Leave study found that two-thirds of women who returned to employment after the birth of their first child return to part-time employment. Furthermore, around three-quarters of women in either full- time or part-time work after the birth of their child would prefer to be working part-time. For women who had not returned to employment, 47 per cent preferred not working but 49 per cent would have liked a part-time job. Obviously there is a preference for part-time work amongst women with pre- school children; another study of maternity leave in the Victorian Public Service (Castleman, Mulvaney and Wulff, 1989) reported similar findings.

In the Maternity Leave study, just over a third (36 per cent) of fathers were involved in child care when the women returned to work, although 18 months after the birth it is not uncommon to find several different types of child care being used. In 10 per cent of cases, the child care was done solely by the father. Generally in these cases the wives worked part-time (67 per cent worked one to nineteen hours, 22 per cent twenty to thirty-four hours, and 11 per cent full-time). The wives' occupations tended to be in sales and service industries, manual work and nursing, all occupations where it is possible to get part-time work and/or shift work. These results indicate that many fathers are already sharing parenting responsibilities in an effort to enable their wives to participate in the labour force. The availability of parental leave, particularly with the option to negotiate part-time employment will increase the options open to both parents in the area of child-rearing and workforce participation.

Increased technology in the work place and job restructuring have led to major emphasis on the development and maintenance of skilled workers. This level of investment in skills by individual employers and by society as a whole, as well as the need for Australia to maintain its place in increasingly competitive international markets, make it imperative that skills are fostered. The Parental Leave decision, with the options it provides to male and female workers at the birth of a child or if they adopt a child, will assist in the successful achievement of this goal.


  • ABS (1988), Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Australia, Catalogue No.6224.0, Table 36.
  • Castleman, T., Mulvaney, J., and Wulff, M (1989), After Maternity, Swinburne Institute of Technology, Centre for Women's Studies, Melbourne.
  • Daniel, W. W. (1981), Maternity Rights: The Experience of Employers, Policy Studies Institute, London.
  • Glezer, H. (1988), Maternity Leave in Australia: Employee and Employer Experiences, Monograph No.7, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Manderson, L. (1989), 'Infant feeding practice in Australia: a review of recent trends', Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol.14, No.1, Feb, pp.30--35.
  • McDonald, P. (1988), 'Future birth rates in Australia', Family Matters, No.22, December,¬†Statistics Sweden, 1989.