Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Work and Care Select Committee; Report

3:43 pm

Photo of Barbara PocockBarbara Pocock (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It is my pleasure to present the final report of the Select Committee on Work and Care, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and accompanying documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Over the past eight months, I've chaired this committee working with my colleagues, Deputy Chair Senator O'Neill and Senators White, Stewart, Askew, Bragg, and Ruston. Together, we have looked at how Australians put together their jobs with the care of others. We've been ably assisted by the Senate's committee secretariat led by Jane Thomson. You all serve the Australian Senate and public so well. Thank you for your work. I give particular thanks to the 125 organisations and individuals who wrote submissions and appeared at our 11 days of public hearings. It has been a fascinating privilege to hear directly from employers, workers, unions, community organisations and carers around the country what is happening out there in the land of the working carer.

We offer the Senate a majority report. The great deal of agreement around the evidence of this inquiry reflects the power of what we have heard. It was consistent. It was convincing. I believe the level of agreement also reflects the fact we committee members live the realities affecting so many other Australians. We've done this work around the birth of Senator Stewart's baby, Ari; with grandchildren at our knees; with our kids in the next room; and amidst the usual raft of family crises—in short, normal, juggling, working life.

In this way we're part of a changed parliament that shares the changing work and care circumstances of other Australians. It's very different from the parliament of a century ago that set the terms of work for working carers last century. Things like the eight-hour day—the norm of full-time work. At that time this parliament was entirely made up of men. That affected the shape of the labour laws that they wrote. The slow entry of women to this place explains why we did not get any Commonwealth child care until 1973 and did not give working women a paid break after they had a baby until 2011, a hundred years after the ILO said it was a reasonable proposition. Today, around 6.5 million women hold jobs and half our workforce is female. Many of them are also carers. Women now make up 57 per cent of the Senate. This is a changed parliament in a changed world, and it's time for our working arrangements to reflect this.

The powerful evidence we've heard explains our committee's agreement that we need to create better work and care arrangements that deliver greater fairness and equality. It's time for a new, comprehensive and integrated approach to our work and care challenges. Enough with the piecemeal. It's time for a coordinated national effort and for all levels of government to work together to deliver it.

On any day of the week now, four in 10 Australian workers have caring responsibilities while they are at work. Most of us, over the course of our lives, will care for somebody. We're living a 21st-century juggle. but we're awaiting a 21st-century support system as we deal with this new reality. Too many experience time poverty, unpredictable hours and inflexible work. They feel the costs of this juggle in their household budgets, especially as inflation and the costs of care rise.

We urgently need a new work and care regime appropriate to the 21st century, one that does not rely on the individual adaptations of hyperflexible, often overloaded workers who are also parents and carers; one that ensures secure, predictable hours and pay; one that makes the most of new technologies whilst allowing workers to knock off when their hours are done; and one that supports parents of babies to take adequate leave at birth, at the international standard of 52 weeks, and to access the quality, affordable early childhood education and care so essential to our kids and appropriate to a rich OECD nation—care that should be free, in the view of the Greens. We need a regime that does not run the labour market on the stress and sweat of a juggling worker or make the price of being both a worker and a carer a lifetime of low pay, insecurity, part-time work and poverty in retirement.

Our report calls for more recognition of the work of carers at home. The unpaid care by Australians looking after older parents or friends or for disabled people amounts to $77 billion a year. Unpaid work, including that of parents, if you value it, adds up to half the value of Australia's GDP, yet many of these carers are living well below the poverty line.

The effects of a work-life collision do not fall evenly. While they specially affect women, they also fall on so many young people caring for family members as they try to get to school or to a job; immigrant workers who cannot get access to decent work or afford care and make up a large proportion of our low-paid care workforce; First Nations communities who need culturally appropriate child care but can't find it; low-income households who struggle to pay for care; disabled people and their families who would like to see a transition away from low-paying disability enterprises into open employment; and the growing number of workers who are caring for an ageing parent but cannot find respite to take the pressure off.

And it's time for a pay rise for care workers in child care, aged care and disability care. Their work is undervalued, and it doesn't reward their experience and their qualifications. We're seeing the very direct consequences of that today, with news reports of shortfalls of thousands of aged-care workers in a care workforce crisis.

It's plain that we need to increase job security for many workers in our labour market. The most common strategy adopted by Australian working carers, part-time work, has left many women facing insecure jobs, insecure hours and pay, poor career paths, lack of access to training and, ironically, loss of key conditions for working carers, like access to paid sick leave and paid holidays, long service leave, decent superannuation. At the other end of the hours spectrum, a sizeable proportion of men—one-quarter—work long hours. So at one end, women on short hours; at the other end, men on long hours. These arrangements cast long shadows. Too many senior jobs in areas like management have hours that are hostile to care and therefore off limits to so many women. This also means that domestic work is off limits to those men, which loads up their partners. And all of this feeds into the gender pay gap.

Amongst the biggest surprises to the committee, in my view, was evidence of widespread unpredictable rosters and working hours. These conditions mean workers are too often at their employers' beck and call. Alongside this, new technologies that have brought welcome flexibility have also stretched the working day out alongside paid work, making it too hard for people to disconnect from their technologies at the end of the day. Our phones compete with our kids, and then get in the way of our rest and recuperation, so it's time that workers had a right to disconnect from work.

We know that without the care provided by workers and unpaid carers at home we are all impoverished. Without it, there is no future labour supply and simply no economy. We heard powerful evidence about the importance of doing things better. If we can lift the employment participation of carers—mostly women—to reach the rates in countries that offer better paid parental leave and child care, for example, we could increase our workforce participation rate, on average, by four per cent. And we heard evidence that it would boost our GDP by $100 billion. Now, some will point to the cost of doing these things, but they ignore that return on investment, and underinvestment in care means labour shortages, gender inequality and more stress for workers, especially women.

We in the Greens believe this is a crisis that needs an urgent response. Our workforce and our community deserve it, and as a rich OECD country we can afford it. We blow billions a year on super tax breaks that deliver very little for carers or workers in our care industries. The government is looking at giving one-quarter of $1 trillion in stage 3 tax cuts to the very wealthy. This could fund all that we recommend in this report and leave plenty of change. These are political choices. It does not have to be like this. What we do right now matters. Other countries do things differently and we can too. The work arrangements of last century gave Australians a right to work. In the 21st century, it's time for a right to both work and care.

I commend this report to the Senate. I hope it will create momentum for the change that so many Australians are looking for. I thank my fellow senators for their hard work and their collegiality. Thank you.

3:53 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to take note of the Select Committee on Work and Care's Final report. Firstly, I would like to thank the work and care committee secretariat, which has worked tirelessly over the past seven months to help the committee examine the impact that combining work and care responsibility has on the wellbeing of workers, carers and those they care for. We looked into the changing nature of work and how this aligned, or didn't, with caring commitments and the support systems and the policies Australia has in place, as well as overseas models.

It has been a pleasure to work together with other members of this committee, particularly our deputy chair, Senator O'Neill, and chair, Senator Barbara Pocock. And I notice committee member Senator White is here as well. It has been a really collegiate team working together across the seven months.

The inquiry received more than 120 submissions from a variety of organisations and individuals. Committee members attended 11 hearings across the country—from Albany in Western Australia to Melbourne in Victoria and many places in between—to ensure that we had as full a picture as possible to assess the impact of concurrent working and caring. We appreciated the honest accounts expressed by witnesses in submissions, and particularly during our hearings. Recommendations outlined in the work and care Final report are aspirational and extensive. And unfortunately, in some cases, they do not take into account the significant implications such measures would have in the areas of education, social services and health, and workplace relations.

The Australian labour market is diverse, which reflects the diversity within our population. We support all forms of work—full time, part time, casual, gig or a mix—because it means Australian jobseekers can find positions, arrangements and levels of work that fit around their needs. However, many recommendations in the report, often reflecting the Labor government's policies, demonise certain forms of work and limit the flexibility many employees seek when working in those industries. Forcing such changes and trying to create a one-size-fits-all approach would be detrimental and have unintended consequences for some employer-employee arrangements. The gig economy sustains thousands of independent contractors who make individual choices about where and when they sell their services. Consider the potential unintended consequences of overregulation of the gig economy on your local plumber, electrician or preferred Uber driver. They could lose their freedom to work for more than one platform at the same time.

The former coalition government introduced the first statutory definition of 'casual employee', which benefited both employees and employers because it gave a clear determination of the nature of the employment arrangement at the outset. We also introduced the right for casual employees to convert to permanent employment after 12 months, should they wish to. Changes within our workplace relations system take time. Productivity, choice and options must all be considered to ensure conditions are improving for Australians, not being made more difficult. Changes to leave entitlements, awards, rights and obligations should follow previous systems of workplace relations reform, which is appropriately done through the Fair Work Commission. For example, when the coalition government introduced paid family and domestic violence leave, the Fair Work Commission deliberated on how this would impact Australian employers and employees.

Coalition committee members don't agree with moves to establish superannuation as a national employment standard. The Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Luke Yeaman, confirmed that 80 per cent of the wages growth in the federal budget is consumed by the mandatory superannuation increases, in response to a question by Senator Bragg in the November 2022 budget estimates hearings. We believe the Australian government should be making workplaces more flexible, not less.

Our social security system provides a strong safety net that is available to any Australian for as long as they need it, where they meet eligibility criteria. This system is funded by taxpayers and needs to be managed responsibly—a responsibility that extends to future generations. Coalition committee members continue to support the principle of mutual obligation within our welfare system. These critical requirements ensure jobseekers are actively looking for work and participating in activities that will help them into employment. For example, the highly successful ParentsNext program, which has helped thousands of parents return to the workforce through improving their work readiness, also includes mutual obligation requirements. We believe in a flexible workplace relations system that mutually benefits both employers and employees, and we oppose a move to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Coalition senators also support a strong employment services system, underpinned by the principle of mutual obligation, and will oppose moves to abandon or water down these requirements. The stable workplace relations framework and strong employment services system that were in place during the term of the coalition government were one of the reasons that unemployment was at a 50-year low when the coalition left office in May 2022.

Multiple recommendations within the final report relate to early childhood education and care. While coalition members support recommendations to address childcare deserts, we do not believe the Australian government should be involved in creating the centres themselves. Instead, the government should work with communities to increase access to early childhood education through funding for community groups and councils to establish centres in areas of greatest need. Family is the building block of society, and we want Australian families to continue to have choice and access to quality care that works for them. While we support regular reviews of early childhood education and care systems and the development of a framework for a flexible system, the ACCC Childcare inquiry, the Productivity Commission's Early Childhood Education and Care inquiry and the Australian government's Early Years Strategy inquiry are already looking at this, so recommendations from these inquiries should be considered before any action is taken. Victorian and New South Wales governments have extended the existing Preschool Reform Agreement to three-year-old children through their own budgets. We recommend the Australian government incentivise and support other state and territory governments to roll out programs to extend the current agreements for four-year-old children past 2025.

And mental health support is important for all Australians, particularly for both paid and unpaid carers, as they deal with the pressures of their caring role and the support they provide to those relying on their care. The former coalition government led reform of the mental health system by committing almost $3 billion to our mental health and suicide prevention plan. This plan expanded Australia's headspace network to 164 locations and established a national network of adult Head to Health centres and child mental health hubs to provide free multidisciplinary mental health care. Additionally, the coalition government introduced a telehealth model of care during the COVID-19 pandemic which included mental health care through GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists. Initiatives to establish a dedicated mental health service for healthcare workers, including those in the aged-care sector, and online mental health training for health practitioners and health workers were also introduced. The coalition recommends urgent reinstatement of the full 20 Medicare subsidised mental health sessions to support vulnerable Australians.

In closing, I reiterate that the coalition members of the committee support proven and fiscally sensible measures to support those who combine work and care responsibilities.

4:01 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with considerable pride that I rise to speak to the tabling of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care. This report is comprehensive, thorough and unwavering in its account of the current state of work and care in Australia. Both the formal and informal care economies in their present form present unreasonable challenges and cause unacceptable harm to far too many Australians. This report documents that reality, and it offers a range of policy options for governments of all persuasions in undertaking the modernisation and reform of this sector. It is a sector that has been so long neglected. There is no quick redress of the great challenge that lies there before us. It's going to require fiscally as well as socially responsible change—incremental change—to ensure that Australia's formal and informal work and care industries are fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century.

I would like to begin by thanking my Labor colleagues on the committee, Senator White and Senator Stewart, for their diligent work throughout the course of the inquiry. I'd also very much like to thank Senator Barbara Pocock—her first term here, as a new Greens senator, and her first inquiry. I want to acknowledge—something that is so often unacknowledged in the media—the collegial nature and collaborative way in which this committee has proceeded to hear the real voice of Australia and to document it in a way that will help us name the current reality and actually shape the wicked policy problem that confronts us. Senator Pocock led the committee in a way that enabled us to do that in the writing and the review of the final report.

I'd also like to thank members of the opposition—in particular, Senator Askew, who's just made a contribution to this debate, as well as Senator Ruston and also Senator Bragg, who filled out the team. Again, that collaboration and spirit of goodwill throughout the course of the inquiry is important. I want to note that this committee report lands with additional comments from all groups—from Labor senators, from the Greens senator who chaired the committee and also from Liberal senators—but they are not dissenting reports; they are additional comments. We will necessarily have very different ways of thinking about what should happen next and the manner in which the timing might be undertaken. And of course I want to acknowledge how important fiscal responsibility is in the current climate to make this task achievable at the same time as ensuring the wealth and benefit to the nation of managing our economy with care and rigor.

One of the most consistent pieces of evidence heard throughout the course of the inquiry related to the gendered and uneven burden of care responsibilities and the way in which women in both formal and informal care economies are disadvantaged by current systems and practices. The report also explores the ways in which the socioeconomic devaluation of care work—in particular, care work that is predominantly still undertaken by women—has entrenched gender and other inequalities in our workplaces. Arising from the evidence received by the committee, the report considers the impact of these inequalities throughout people's lives, revealing a lifelong pattern whereby the cost of care is disproportionately borne by women on lower wages, in insecure employment and with low retirement incomes.

Given the almost categorical disadvantage inherent to the experience of women within the work and care sector, it was particularly poignant that the committee itself comprised almost entirely women, with the exception of Senator Bragg. I note that Senator Bragg was balancing his own childcare responsibilities while participating in this inquiry. That reflects the changing nature of Australia and care and the way in which we need to respond to that reality.

Whilst each of the groups occupy different points on the political spectrum, the drive to ensure that the report accurately reflected the state of work and care in Australia was one by which we stood very firmly. The outworking of the set of recommendations that we've delivered today will have real capacity, over time, to address the disadvantages of women in this sector, and there was universal agreement about that. I'd like to thank the secretariat—another team composed almost entirely of women—for their diligent work throughout the course of the inquiry. They're deserving of singular praise for the quality of the report that's been produced.

We heard evidence from a wide range of stakeholders: major retailers, unions, individual workers, early childhood educators, care advocacy groups, those within the formal care economy and beyond. Each one of the insights that were offered from those groups provided valuable contributions to the committee, and the recommendations of the report arise directly from their evidence.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association argued in their submission to the committee that access to carers leave should be extended to caring for anyone a worker provides care to, regardless of whether they form part of the person's household or immediate family. The reality is that people are caring beyond those arbitrary boundaries and their care is intersecting with their work, and not in a way that is sustainable, healthy, or practical. Families are not singularly defined. People may have different family structures that don't fall into the traditional definition of immediate family, and the provision of care to the people they recognise as part of their family or community should be supported. Care is a reality and a need that extends beyond bureaucratic attempts to contain it. The committee responded to this evidence through recommending that the definition of 'immediate family' be broadened within the Fair Work Act to more accurately reflect the close personal relationships which many Australians have in which they provide care. This is just one example of the way in which the committee directly responded in its recommendations to the evidence gathered and delivered to the inquiry.

The report also recommends that the government undertake consideration of a number of measures relating to paid parental leave and early childhood education and care which will seek to form a pathway to bring Australia to the forefront of best practice when it relates to this industry. Labor is deeply proud of its legacy in the introduction of paid parental leave and the very important recent passage of legislation which will bring Australian carers to 26 weeks of paid parental leave within the coming years. But the reality of neglect in this area by the former government means that the path to what was declared as the international standard of 52 weeks is an enormous policy and fiscal challenge that needs careful attention and strategic planning.

The report also contains recommendations aimed at ensuring that Australian workers have access to flexible working environments and roster justice and that large companies cannot intentionally fail to collect data which would demonstrate the often inflexible accommodation attitudes of management to those seeking altered hours and conditions. The SDA's 2021 survey report into work, family and care saw the collection of data from over 6,000 employees. It was submitted to the committee, and 55 per cent of the survey participants said they provided care to another person on a regular basis.

This is not a niche issue. This is happening in every community, every family and every set of care relationships in our country. It's for that reason employers must ensure that flexible working arrangements are a practical reality for employees and that the process of requesting altered hours or conditions is not bogged down by bureaucracy or subject to the whims of individual managers. We have made recommendations to that end.

Mandated roster notice periods were very uncertain. The data poverty was like a black hole. I was appalled that major providers of retail in Australia could tell us, within 10 seconds, of product leaving shelf 7 of aisle 3 but couldn't tell us about their workers and their shifts and rostering. That is no longer an acceptable reality in this time, when so much data is available to us.

Evidence heard throughout the course of the inquiry also detailed increasing prevalence of gig platforms within the Australian economy and the way in which such platforms leave workers without normal working protections. It's also argued by some stakeholders that the algorithmic aspect of these platforms has the capacity to amplify existing bias and discrimination. For this reason, recommendation 26 of the report is that the principle of equal pay for equal work should be applied to those in the gig economy and that the Australian government should remove incentives for gig platforms to avoid workplace regulations. This recommendation arose out of evidence provided to the committee particularly relating to the potential harm of gig platforms in relation to the formal care economy.

The report provides a range of options for further policy work and offers the government the opportunity to consider the work of the committee as it plans a forward program. The government has already made substantial progress towards improving Australia's industrial relations framework, as well as our formal and informal care economy. The centrepiece of the government's first budget was a major investment in affordable early childhood education and care and modernisation and expansion of paid parental leave. Sadly, this report reveals there is so much more work to do.

4:11 pm

Photo of Linda WhiteLinda White (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the tabling of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care. I join with my fellow senators in thanking the secretariat for the fantastic work that they performed in supporting us and marshalling a range of witnesses before us. I thank, too, Senator Barbara Pocock, who before coming here was in fact an expert in this area in her own right. It was a privilege to serve with her on this inquiry. The deputy chair, Senator O'Neill, added her experience to the mix, and I found that invaluable, as were the contributions of Senator Askew, Ari Stewart—Senator Stewart's new child—and also Senator Bragg.

I'm no stranger to the complexity of the problems which face people, mainly women, who have to struggle simultaneously with the responsibilities of work and care. My working life before I came to this place was characterised by fighting for the rights of working people to care alongside their right to work, like fighting for the provision of paid parental leave at Qantas, fighting for the first EBA to include paid family and domestic violence leave, or fighting for and winning extra super in agreements at many, many private-sector employers. But, even with my experience of progressing issues like this, the committee process for this report highlighted just how far behind the times Australia has fallen in providing a decent structure to assist our fellow Australians to balance their working hours with their caring responsibilities. Unfortunately, Australia is an international outlier that demands that working carers mould their lives around working conditions designed for workers and households of the last century.

Paid parental leave is a great example. While the previous government stalled, the world around us moved towards more comprehensive models of paid parental leave. Just this week, we saw the Labor government begin to turn this tide around by legislating for 26 weeks, a full six months, of paid parental leave by 2026. The changes have also increased flexibility arrangements and incentivised blokes to take on more caring responsibilities by strengthening the 'use it or lose it' provisions. This structure improves the way Australian families balance work and care by making it easier for both parents to participate in the workforce and share care. It means having a baby isn't as much of an economic and professional setback as it once was. I would note that the committee heard—and this is reflected in the final report—that 52 weeks of paid parental leave is generally considered international best practice. Given that, I echo the sentiment of the report, which recommends the Australian government consider how to fund and implement that best-practice standard. We deserve no less.

Another example is the adoption of part-time work as the default option for working carers. In other countries, full-time work for parents is much more common because of the support systems around them to make this possible. Where there is part-time work, it has been structured to allow for flexibility and security. In Australia, part-time work is looking more and more like casual work but without the loading—that is, it's insecure and underpaid. In Australia we need to remedy this by thinking carefully about what a casual worker is, what a part-time worker is and what the important differences are between the two. We need to make sure that these different modes of work are defined meaningfully and can't be used to undermine flexibility and pay. The evidence has also reminded me of just how much is lost for our domestic economy and for individuals when the structure is not fit for purpose. As it stands, our system does not adequately recognise that work and care are two sides of the economy and labour in Australia. Both are productive and both take effort.

We heard that women who have caring responsibilities for kids, the elderly or others don't want to be working part time. They want full-time work and full-time hours, but the inflexible nature of the way we approach things like rostering, leave entitlements and child care mean that for many woman full-time work can't be juggled with everything else. That is a shame for Australia because we actually lose a whole pool of workers who want to contribute more and who want to work more. It's also a shame for Australia because this same pool of workers is more likely to be the sort of professional carers we desperately need right now. They are the nurses, the disability support workers, the childcare workers and the aged-care workers that are in shortage.

It's also a shame for women. Without the proper policy ecosystem to support women to work the increased amount they wish to, we are never going to cut the gender pay gap and we are never going to cut the superannuation gap. While the implicit assumption of our industrial relations and employment policies is that women are expected to sacrifice their professional work to fulfil their caring responsibilities, women in already poorly paid industries will not be able to get ahead. It's also a shame for men, who don't get the opportunity to care for their children and parents. We are failing pretty much everyone.

Women and their families should be supported by governments, and the Labor government is starting to turn around a decade of that not being the case. Cheaper child care absolutely pays for itself. Rostering practices need to improve to generally consider employee views about the impact of proposed roster changes and to provide genuine flexibility for caring responsibilities. We heard all too often that a veneer of flexibility exists in rostering but that the reality of chopping and changing rosters with too little notice leaves women and those with caring responsibilities on the outer. We need to look closer at defining the meaning of casual employees in a way that truly reflects the nature of casual work and is restricted to work that is generally intermittent, seasonal or unpredictable. Similarly, we need to ensure that part-time employment isn't just a form of casual employment without the loading. This is important because, as the committee heard many times, limiting insecure forms of employment and creating a more predictable employee-employer relationship will, by extension, provides greater flexibility and scope for accommodating care responsibilities.

One thing that is clear from the final report and from the evidence the committee heard is that there is no quick fix to the challenges Australia faces in rebalancing our system of work and care policies. At the moment, it's clear that our system doesn't provide the correct level of flexibility and support required to get the most out of the workforce and doesn't accurately reflect the caring responsibilities of a modern Australia. As important as it was in 1920, we can no longer rely on the Harvester judgment to organise our ideas of the workforce and the family, because that decision no longer reflects the families, economy or labour market of 21st century Australia. We have to look to what other countries are doing on many fronts: child care, parental leave, working hours, aged care and much more. Other countries have lowered the gender pay gap and have a better balance of work and care than we do. But there is no one silver bullet to improve the key indicators on which we want to be measured. We cannot continue to be an outlier in the world.

I look forward to working as part of a government that is committed to tackling these challenges and that thinks critically and exchanges with complex issues rather than shirking their responsibilities, as has been the story in the last decade. This report is important. It contributes vital, contemporary knowledge to the debate about the state of work and care in Australia. It also provides great insight into the lived experience of workers who are also carers. These experiences are often neglected and fall by the wayside. I am pleased that the Senate has taken the time to listen, and I look forward to the discussion the report encourages us to have. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.