Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Statements by Senators

South Australia: Families

12:25 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on one of the motivations which drives me most to be here in this position representing South Australians: the importance of supporting, uplifting and standing side by side with South Australian families, of advancing their aspirations for themselves and for their children.

Family is everything. For most of us, it is the most important thread that runs through our lives, whether it's the family that we are born into or the family that we choose for ourselves and build for ourselves. Building, protecting, growing and providing for family—of whatever size, shape and make-up—is what drives all the South Australians that I speak to. Because, for these South Australians, family is everything. But when family is broken, strained or under pressure, we find that family failure becomes the source of what goes wrong for too many in our communities, for too many individuals and for our society.

Today I want to talk about an issue that is putting many Australians under strain and that has, for many families, worsened during this pandemic: the challenge of balancing work, care and family responsibilities. But, before I do, I want to acknowledge that the Australian family unit has changed drastically in recent decades. Blended families and stepfamilies are more common, as are extended households where more than two generations live under the same roof. This is sometimes in order to address a lack of access to care for younger ones or the elderly; at other times it's to facilitate better care of those in need, those with disability or those who need extra support. In this place we should be aware of the way the family unit is constantly changing and evolving and how that impacts and interacts with how we craft policy responses to these changes. We should take into account the needs of all people, of all families, when it comes to balancing work and care.

Today I especially want to speak, with a particular focus, about the work, family and care situation of workers in an industry about which I am very passionate: retail, fast food and warehousing. Over the past two years, we have found that these workers—along with, of course, doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, among many others—are truly essential. During lockdowns they went to work. They fronted up each day. Many endured the most vile abuse and were expected to manage crowd control on top of their usual duties. Some were expected, amongst all of this stress and pressure, during times when their communities were locked down, to somehow manage additional caring responsibilities. Those caring responsibilities didn't go away when schools were closed, but these workers still had to turn up to work. Cobbling together a mix of formal and informal care was an incredible strain and put pressure on many of these families. Many worked in locked-down parts of our country without having access to vaccines, in part because of the government's appallingly slow rollout.

Despite these sacrifices—which we know were so great—from these workers, they were given the recognition they deserved, as essential workers, far too late. They were given the support they needed far too late. Too often, our retail workers, our fast food workers and those working in warehousing haven't been rewarded for their heroic contribution during this pandemic, and they certainly haven't been rewarded when it comes to their wages. They aren't being recognised when it comes to managing the competing demands of family responsibilities, caring responsibilities and essential work.

In a recent UNSW Social Policy Research Centre study into the work, family and caring responsibilities of workers in these sectors, 55 per cent of participants said they regularly provide some form of care to another person. That could be in the form of caring for a child, a grandchild, an older person, a person with disability or a person with long-term health conditions. This rate is much higher than for the broader population. Indeed, ABS stats of the broader population suggest that one in nine Australians, or 11 per cent, provide unpaid care to people with a disability and older Australians. This report of members of the union representing these workers, the SDA, found that 24 per cent of workers were in this field. The report finds that many workers in retail, fast food and warehousing are struggling to balance the responsibilities of work, care and families.

We need to drastically rethink the way we think about care in Australia and the way that we make and deliver policy about care, because care, whether for a child, the elderly, those with disability or others, cannot be an afterthought in the design of either social or economic policy. Providing care is one of the most important jobs a person can have. Those in formal care work should be recognised accordingly, with good wages, good conditions and real security in the work that they do, and we must do more to value and recognise informal care—the care that our parents, friends, aunties, uncles and, for an increasing number of Australians, grandparents do, particularly to raise children. It is clearly an emotionally rewarding experience for many, and I feel that in our family very deeply. But it can be exhausting. Many will call it the hardest job they've ever had.

There are things government can do to make life easier for Australians who are supporting our society, supporting those in the workforce and supporting our essential workers. For our essential workers, we can help give them better choice when it comes to their care arrangements and how they are managed around their employment, and we can ensure that the benefits that come from the now-celebrated increased flexibility in workplace arrangements are felt not just by employers but by employees, who deserve and are entitled to balance in their life outside of work and to manage and maintain their responsibilities outside of work. We can also minimise the number of workers, in these industries and in the caring industries, who are kept on rolling contracts for years, by giving them security and a stronger hand when negotiating rosters.

The UNSW report I referred to earlier highlights a number of key findings when it comes to managing work and caring responsibilities, the first—and this will come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to this sector—being that access to formal early education and care is one of the most significant barriers. Of course, this matters not just in terms of supporting care arrangements but also in terms of supporting the early development of children, which I have spoken about extensively in this place. But, when it comes to supporting care arrangements to enable parents to participate in essential work, they are hampered by the cost of child care, which is preventing too many families from participating. Childcare fees have skyrocketed under this government. In fact, they've gone up by almost 40 per cent since the Liberals were elected. For many families, this is holding back their aspirations and their opportunities in work. Of those surveyed in the UNSW report, 43 per cent of mothers and 35 per cent of fathers with children under 12 wanted to work more hours but were unable to because they couldn't access care. Many reported turning down shifts—care was so expensive they were better off staying at home. This is a crucial point to consider when we hear about labour shortages, as we have in recent weeks, and yet, knowing all of this, the Morrison government has proposed a childcare policy which doesn't go nearly far enough. It rips any extra support away from families with two children in care, once the older child goes to school, and completely leaves out parents with one child in care, which is 74 per cent of families.

Australian families pay some of the highest rates of child care in the world, and that's why Labor has a plan to relieve this pressure. We have a plan to increase the childcare subsidy rate for every Australian family earning less than $530,000. Beyond the issue of access to child care, we know too that, while so many workers have benefitted from Labor's nation-changing reform of paid parental leave, there is still more work to do in this project. We know that the fact that superannuation is not paid on parental leave payments contributes to the super gap and to the fact that women in their older age are part of the fastest-growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness and poverty. There are things we can do about that .There are policy choices we can make to fix that and to enhance it, just as there are in care.

We owe our essential workers, who have endured so much during this pandemic, who not only have taken on the additional burdens of the stress of this work during these difficult times but have still had to manage and balance their care and family responsibilities with their work and have felt so unsupported in doing so. These workers deserve better. They deserve a clearer look at our policy levers to make sure they are supported, and they deserve acknowledgement not just in thanks but in their pay, their conditions and the support we give them.


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