maternity leave

Exposed: the Myth of Maternity Leave

Article By Fiona Carruthers

Less than one third of women who earn under $30,000 a year receive paid maternity leave, according to a nationwide survey conducted by a Sydney University team. But the figure rises to almost two thirds of women in the $50,000 to $70,000 pay bracket, contradicting the claim that a national paid maternity scheme would amount to “middle class welfare”.

“Based on these results, it is women who earn less that $30,000 a year and work in areas like hospitality, business services or farming who would benefit most from a national paid maternity leave scheme,” says one of the team’s research leaders and senior lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University’s Business School, Dr Marian Baird.

More than 1000 employees aged 15 and over were contacted by phone for the study, organised by the Work and Family Group within the University’s World of Work Research Cluster. The study aimed to create a clearer picture of parental leave in Australia, whether women had access to paid maternity leave and whether they had used unpaid maternity leave.

Researchers found that only one-third of women questioned took unpaid maternity leave on the birth of their last child, with many apparently quitting their jobs to care for young families, forgoing income, career opportunity and superannuation – while their employers lost their worker’s skills and loyalty.

The survey also looked at paternity leave, finding that 20 per cent of men interviewed had access to this option. But Dr Baird pointed out that paid paternity leave usually consisted of only a day or a week. “In many ways, you could say it was merely tokenistic,” she said.

Dr Baird said the study was conducted to help fill gaps in the data available in Australia. At present, Australia has no legislated scheme for paid maternity or parental leave. “It seems so unbelievable that people often don’t realise this is the case,” said Dr Baird. “But until there is a nationally legislated entitlement it’s up to employees and employers to negotiate paid maternity leave. There are some standards: for example the NSW public service generally offers women nine weeks’ paid maternity leave, while the Federal Public Service provides twelve weeks.”

Dr Baird argues that the research contradicted Federal Finance Minister Senator Nick Minchin’s controversial remark that a legislated paid maternity scheme would amount to “middle class welfare.” He made the comment after the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity commissioner, Ms Pru Goward, launched a report, putting forward various proposals for paid maternity leave.

“In our study, we found it is women in the lowest paid jobs, and in casual and part time work, who are far less likely to have access to paid maternity leave,” said Dr Baird. “So I fail to see how it’s middle class welfare.”

Reprinted with permission from The University of Sydney – UNI NEWS – Vol 35 No 4 28 March 2003

Source: From Inkwel April 2003