Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Work and Care Select Committee; Report

3:36 pm

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

Two weeks ago to this day I had the honour of presenting the final report of the Select Committee on Work and Care to the Senate, and since then I've been overwhelmed by the public's response to the report's recommendations, particularly the recommendation for a four-day week trial and the right to disconnect.

Australians are increasingly having to juggle work and unpaid care. Many workers are trying to balance multiple jobs to make ends meet, and technology is causing availability creep, bringing work into rest time. People are working more than ever, whether in unpaid care or in paid work, but not feeling the reward. In fact, real wages are going backwards for many Australians while the cost of living continues to rise. The public response to these issues is clear. We need a new working-time regulation fit for a 21st century workforce. When Australia's labour laws were first set, they were based on the assumption that a worker had a wife at home—someone to care for the kids and run the household. Today, almost half of all workers are women, and neither they nor most men have a partner running their home. On any day of the week, four in 10 workers are juggling their job and care responsibilities. Despite all this change, we're still awaiting a 21st century workplace law that recognises this reality.

This report sets out two things we could do right now to better regulate working time: implement a right to disconnect and trial a four-day work week. The committee heard substantial evidence in favour of the four-day week. Notably, we heard from Momentum Mental Health, a not-for-profit mental health service currently participating in an international four-day week trial. All the organisation's staff have caring responsibilities, and the trial followed the 100-80-100 model—100 per cent of wages, 80 per cent of hours, 100 per cent productivity. The results to date have been amazing. Productivity has been maintained. In some parts of the organisation, it's increased. Client satisfaction, external stakeholder engagement and the number of hours of service delivery have all increased. At the same time, employee sick days have decreased, while measures of happiness, work-life balance and the amount of sleep have increased.

These positive results are reflected in the findings of the world's largest trial of a four-day week, conducted in the UK, which were released around the time of this report. It gives the same positive picture. An 18-month trial at Unilever in New Zealand, showed a four-day week brought about a 34 per cent fall in absenteeism, a 33 per cent fall in stress and a 60 per cent fall in work-life conflict. Today, we've heard about a new agreement at Oxfam, where 90 employees have negotiated an enterprise agreement with a four-day week. The evidence could not be any clearer: a four-day week is good for business, good for workers, good for carers and good for the economy. It's worth considering a recommendation that received wide support in our report for implementing a trial of a four-day week more broadly. Reducing working hours is of course just one piece of the puzzle. We also need to take action to reinforce limits on working time, with a legally protected right to disconnect—a right to turn off your phone or your technology—and look after yourself, your family and friends.

Evidence given to the inquiry told us that our constant connection to work through our phone has no limits, but it has many and varied negative consequences for people's health and for our relationships. It affects people in insecure jobs, in particular, where they're constantly waiting for the phone to vibrate, telling them when their next shift or hours might be. It also affects people in full-time jobs, who have to check for texts and emails outside of hours, worried they might have missed an important piece of information, long after they've knocked off for the day. As a result, as a nation Australians are working massive amounts of unpaid overtime—$93 billion worth across the economy, which is an average of 4.5 hours each per week. This amounts to a very massive level of wage theft.

The Greens want to see a legal right to disconnect from work, and Labor have joined us in a majority report, which was a key recommendation of this report. On Monday, my colleague Adam Bandt introduced a bill to the House that, if passed, would create a law that prevents employers from contacting employees outside working time unless it was essential or for the welfare of the worker. It's time to update our standards in this area, as has been done in France, Spain, Ireland, Canada and many other countries. I commend the government for supporting the recommendations of the Work and Care committee's report. Workers and families can't wait any longer.

I urge the government to support our bill to implement a right to disconnect for all workers and to undertake a comprehensive four-day work week trial. It's beyond time that our workplace relations system and our labour law caught up with the way we actually live and reflected our 21st-century workforce.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Steele-John, if you're speaking on this document, at the end of your contribution could you consider whether you wish to keep it in the list?

3:41 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The benefits of a four-day work week are undeniable. There is evidence from all around the world that speaks to this reality. The case studies cite numerous examples of improvements in the physical and mental health of workers, higher rates of employment retention, fewer sick days taken and increased focus and engagement while working—also known as enjoying your job! All of this is achieved while maintaining productivity and output in the vast number of studies that have been undertaken. So the case is strong; it's pretty spectacular.

What I want to do this afternoon is add a few specific benefits for members of the disability community. Managing a full-time workload is challenging for anyone, especially with the astronomical rises in childcare costs, soaring interest rates, stagnant wages and a general pressure around the rise in the cost of living. On top of this, many disabled people and many chronically ill people have additional expenses, including medical appointments, medication and assisted technology equipment. The list goes on and on and on.

It really is important to remember that many disabled people and chronically ill people don't receive any financial benefits or assistance with these costs. Many of us aren't eligible for the NDIS or other forms of support. Even when we are it is rare, in my experience, that the supports available meet someone's actual costs and actually cover the cost of being disabled. Put this together with the reality that many disabled people and chronically ill people are in a situation where they are forced to work beyond their capacity in order to afford the care and the supports they need to live a good life, and you begin to see the picture of why a four-day work week would be so beneficial for disabled people and chronically ill people. Over time, the fact that we are forced to work beyond our capacity in order to live puts us at a much higher likelihood of burnout and the need to take an extended amount of time away from the workplace—or in some cases to stop work altogether—typically at a huge personal, professional and financial cost.

Maintaining 100 per cent of the salary for 80 per cent of the work hours and having that become the standard, as the Greens' four-day work week plan proposes, will help correct this structural imbalance that is not serving so many disabled people. Allowing people to take more time—to take the time needed to gain the energy to get better and to be able to work through struggles in their lives—while simultaneously having the funds they need to do that would transform people's lives. Hopefully, over time, we will be able to support people to avoid periods of burnout altogether and to avoid being forced out of the workforce and onto the DSP, JobSeeker or other allowance payments. I constantly hear from disabled people about how difficult it is to access these payments when they actually need them and the way in which they force them to live below the poverty line.

One of the key barriers to successfully navigating the workforce as a disabled person or a chronically ill person that I hear of constantly in the community is that struggle of juggling working for five days a week while also attempting to attend all the medical and healthcare appointments that you are required to engage in as a disabled person to maintain your care. Work-from-home options and flexible start and finish times obviously help with this tremendously, but I cannot emphasise enough how valuable additional accommodations would be to the community and how important it is that these types of flexibilities that would be enabled by a four-day work week actually become the norm. Even with these in place, we know that most medical appointments still happen during business hours, so we need to give people more of their week back. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.