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Laila Harre Speech to Work/Life Summit

Hon Laila Harre Speech Notes

Speech to Work/Life Summit
March 9 2000

I would like to begin by congratulating the UK government on your announced improvements in provisions for maternity and paternity leave. As we in New Zealand debate the introduction of paid leave for new parents, it helps us that other countries are still improving entitlements.

I am also grateful to all of you who have throughout the day shared your experience and expertise in promoting work/life issues at the level of the individual company.

In my contribution this evening I want to take a wee step back from the focus on how we achieve work/life integration and suggest that it is important to remind ourselves why we are doing it too.

Why is it that around the world we are having to find mechanisms to humanise work – especially for caregivers? After all, mothers are still having children and they are also turning up for work. So why bother?

Earlier speakers have focussed on the business case for work/life integration. This is critical to the detail of work/life initiatives and has clearly met many business needs for the recruitment and retention of skilled women staff in the midst of an international skill shortage. However the experience of the wartime inclusion and post war exclusion of women in paid employment should have taught us that the right of women to equal participation in paid work is not always a given.

So, I want to address two additional reasons for action that go beyond the business case and suggest that, as the citizens’ last port of call for moderating markets, the state has an important place in this debate.

Firstly, there is growing evidence that managing work and family commitments is a key contributor to stress in individuals, families and communities. Money is part of it, as is time and the quality of the workplace experience.

Secondly, any institution that excludes a certain group of people from full participation because of a quality that they have, or the social implications of that quality prevents equality. If equality is something we value, then we can not continue to limit women’s participation by failing to accommodate caregivers.

So in addition to the business case for work/life balance, there are these other, small matters, of unhappiness and inequality which are my point of departure.

The language of work/life balance is relatively new. But the concept is far from novel. Most historic trade union victories and workplace interventions by the state have been about the dignity of work and the struggle for humane workplace practices.

While I will focus on workers as parents and caregivers, I will also refer to some of the success stories in work/life integration that have perhaps not been labelled as such.

Let’s start with traditional pay setting systems. Designed to preserve the “family wage” they were a form of work/life balance. The difference between that form of work/life integration and the sort that is the subject of this meeting is that whereas the family wage delivered to a society based on a gendered division of labour between the home and the workplace, modern work/life integration must be achieved both within the home and within the workplace.

There has always been a need to manage the relationship between production and reproduction.

The period of a gender based division of labour between production and reproduction might be ultimately viewed as an aberration separating periods characterised by the full integration of production and reproduction in earlier human development, and a future in which caregivers are facilitated in combining paid and unpaid work.

Making this transition is testing us all around the world.

I suggest we see our modern concept of work/life balance as simply another step in the humanisation of paid work. That way we can refer back to earlier humanisation efforts, such as the introduction of the most basic of health and safety measures for assistance in how we might progress.

Pulling children out of chimnies and introducing other early health and safety measures took a combination of agitation, negotiation and regulation.

Our effectiveness will depend on our ability to create the space for all three approaches. Agitation and negotiation have had and will have some impact. But as with all broad attacks on discrimination, regulatory action is also essential.

Broad-based equality measures, by their very nature, require governments to act. That is because markets are not designed to deliver non-discriminatory outcomes. Without some sort of distortion – such as a rule or a subsidy – markets will always reflect the distribution of power within a society. Thus it was necessary for equal pay legislation to be introduced to address even the most blatant pay discrimination between men and women.

Some might argue in the context of work/life balance that we can not legislate for social change. I am not quite sure what this means. It seems to me that governments have always legislated to effect social change and that is indeed why people quite like democracy. Again, equal pay legislation, paid maternity leave and prohibitions on sending children down mines are all broad based social interventions which have required legislative change.

Regulatory interventions vary. Sometimes they need to be highly specific to allow us to share costs. This is the case, for instance, with paid maternity, paternity and parental leave.

In other cases we may need to regulate for an approach to work/life issues. For instance, and again referring back to health and safety, New Zealand no longer has much in the way of specific health and safety regulation but we do have legislation requiring employers to “take all reasonable steps” to remove or eliminate hazards. It would be possible to address some work/life issues this way too. In Australia for instance, anti-discrimination legislation has been interpreted as requiring employers to allow work to be done at home or on a part-time basis. The specifics are negotiated but the principle of flexibility is enshrined in law.

Having made a case for the possibility of regulation, I should admit that in New Zealand we rely largely on voluntary action for work/life initiatives. This has even been the case with paid maternity and paternity leave. Success has been company-specific and dependant on either an unusually high degree of management commitment or very strong bargaining by trade unions.

Because of the occupational segregation of men and women, even if voluntary arrangements could find theoretical favour, there would be big issues of cost. Thus, the cost of maternity leave in female dominated workplaces is one that male-dominated industries can avoid in the absence of cost-sharing regulation (such as in Britain through social security payments).

Part of the problem with this debate over whether there is a place for regulation seems to me to derive from a failure to understand that work/life balance is not a new issue. It might have new dimensions with the large-scale involvement of caregiving women in the paid workforce, but it is an old issue and has been dealt with under other guises. For instance, working hours regulation has been seen as a health and safety matter and the right to paid holidays as something else. Both are work/life issues. I suspect the reason we are finding it harder to deal with current work/life issues is because they are often gender-specific and we still have a real problem with labelling things as discrimination and tackling them.

In New Zealand we have accepted the responsibility of the state to regulate and enforce a range of work/life measures – such as paid annual leave, time off for days of national or (Christian) religious significance, and minimal statutory sickness, domestic and bereavement leave. We do have unpaid parental leave for up to a year after a baby is born or adopted. But when it comes to money, only those issues that are of generic importance to the whole workforce are provided for. Or as we shall see in relation to accident compensation, those issues which predominantly affect our traditional male workforce.

Thus, many workforce interventions have had their origins in work/life concerns.

Looking at old things in new ways, our own accident compensation scheme, for example, might not strike anyone as being about work/life matters but is in fact extremely supportive of a balance between paid and unpaid work and recreation.

In 1974 we abolished the right to sue for personal injury by accident and introduced a unified compensation and rehabilitation scheme applying the same principles to all accidents whether they happened at work or at home, on the road or sportsfield. Thus a rugby injury is treated in almost exactly the same way as a work one. No fault is apportioned. Except for the first week’s wages (which can usually be taken as sick leave) 80% of earnings are replaced, all hospital and most medical expenses paid and rehabilitation – including retraining for alternative work is provided. Our government will also be reintroducing lump sum compensation for pain and suffering later this year. And this in a country with no paid maternity leave!

Our ACC scheme was revolutionary in many respects, but in this context it is notable for its conceptions of work and life. An injured worker – even one who is to blame for the accident or is hurt playing with the kids or firing up the barbeque – is provided for. An injured housewife – as she was described in the visionary Woodhouse Royal Commission’s report – is equally worthy of compensation because without her support the productive process could not operate.

The ACC scheme is also notable for the distribution of direct costs and benefits. Employer levies fund work accidents. An employee levy funds non-work and non-vehicle accidents for earners. Vehicle accidents are covered by licensing fees. Accidents to non-earners are covered by general government revenue.

Thus, men and women are equally liable for contributions, as of course should be the case with social insurance. If, however, you were to view these things in terms of individual responsibility, as most of our societies view childcare, and relied only on voluntary measures, the lack of risk rating by gender and other criteria might concern you. Women, after all, cost the scheme considerably less because our work, vehicle and other accidents are less frequent and less serious, and because we earn less and thus are compensated less.

Why you might ask, should women’s premiums be paying for broken blokes?

The answer is, because that is the nature of a society.

The more important question is why are we capable of coming up with a sensible way of funding work/life balance in this area, by providing paid time of work to those who have sports accidents, and yet so slow to respond to the time needs of working parents?

Well, four years of campaigning for the introduction of paid maternity and paternity leave in New Zealand has lead me to believe that our society is still not prepared to admit that it is structured in a deeply discriminatory way when it comes to the full participation of women with children.

When we see a ramp leading up to the entrance of a factory we are looking at a very concrete symbol of the struggle of people with disabilities for participation and against discrimination. By putting a ramp up to the workplace, the employer has made it possible for a person in a wheelchair to gain access to the factory. To get a job. Those of us who do not need the ramp do not complain. The ramp is not there to exclude us. It is there to include someone for whom it is essential to participation. We do not expect the taxpayer to foot the bill for the ramp. Nor the person in the wheelchair. The ramp signals a social consensus that employers should make it possible for people in wheelchairs to get jobs and that if that means paying for a ramp then that is a cost of employment that it is reasonable for the business to bear.

Paid leave after the birth of a child and other steps to address the needs of working parents are ramps of a different kind. Without them, full and equal participation in paid employment remains a distant goal for mothers, and we are unlikely to see the really big shifts we would like towards fathers being able to take on greater caregiving work within the family.

Acknowledging that society has built-in barriers to women’s equal participation in paid work and indeed men’s equal participation in unpaid caring work, is hard for some people to do. It’s worth asking why.

Is it because we like to attribute blame and hold people accountable for bad things like discrimination? If so, we should stop it. By definition, structural discrimination is not something for which anyone can be held personally responsible. The only issue of responsibility arises where there is a failure to address it once it has been identified.

And are we still pretending that caregiving is a private matter that just happens naturally and is not the business of the public or economic sphere? That having babies is a “lifestyle” choice, much like having Wednesday afternoons off for golf? Promoting work/life – and in particular work/family - integration demands an honest accounting of our collective dependence on unpaid caregiving. If we are advocating economic independence through paid work, then it is simply unacceptable to turn a blind eye to the inequality that results for those with caregiving responsibilities.

Or do we retain barriers to mothers’ employment because we don’t really feel comfortable about mothers working? Scratch the surface of this issue and the nostalgia for a unique and short-lived period in our social and economic development – the post war stay at home and have babies one – is not far beneath.

Assumptions arising from it often underpin even worthy research and reporting. For example, recent UK research was published in NZ under banner headlines that the children of working mothers were failing at school. Both the researchers and the reporters had chosen to frame the question as “what happens to children when mothers work” rather than “what happens to children when both their parents work or when their sole parent works”.

We can not assume when we advance issues around families and work that we have a consensus about mothers’ employment at all.

Which leads us to bizarre policy developments, such as New Zealand’s parental tax credit.

This was introduced by the former National Government in 1999 as a response to popular support for 12 weeks paid leave, in the first instance for mothers, after a baby’s birth. The original paid parental leave policy promoted by the Alliance, now part of a new coalition government, would have provided 12 weeks pay, principally to mothers but in some circumstances to fathers who intended to return to their jobs within 12 months of a baby’s birth.

National’s alternative could not have been more different, and indeed made a mockery of paid leave, which is designed to facilitate the integration of work and life. The parental tax credit – like other tax credits aimed at so-called working families is a means-tested tax credit of up to $150 a week for 8 weeks after the birth of a baby. It is only available where one or both parents are in continuous paid employment. Thus, a single working mother would not qualify if she were required to access the domestic purposes benefit during her period of parental leave. On the other hand one-income families where only the father is in paid employment gained the most. They not only suffer no financial loss at the baby’s birth if the mother is not earning, but also win an 8 week, $150 bonus.

This is the kind of distortion that results from an unwillingness to confront issues of discrimination for caregivers in paid employment.

So what do we, the politicians, do next?

Firstly, we should not deny inequality or discrimination where it exists. Attributing blame for the structural inequality that results from the whole history of human development is a waste of time. Accepting responsibility for changing that is not.

Secondly, we should acknowledge the extreme difficulty that individuals have in taking that on all by themselves. Structural discrimination will only be addressed by structural change.

Thirdly, the state can demonstrate good practice as an employer and work with employers, unions and others to promote effective strategies.

Fourthly, we should also recognise that only the state can intervene on behalf of those for whom exchanges in the marketplace inevitably reinforce disadvantage. It is also only through regulation that we can share the costs of these initiatives more fairly. While there are ultimately greater benefits than costs to work/life integration, neither will be naturally distributed in a fair way. For instance it is no fairer to require the individual employers of women to pay for childcare provision than it is for that load to fall entirely on working parents.

Fifthly, we should admit that all of the above is hard. The participation of women in the modern paid workforce has an explosive quality about it. It creates a space for personal empowerment and economic independence, it also creates an opportunity for men to give more care. However above all it reveals contradictions and it exposes society’s collective dependence on caregivers.

Finally, we should celebrate those who have had the foresight to look beyond short term bottom lines to the real gains that can be made by recognising that workplaces are human environments, that workers are human, and that humans have babies, parents, and lives outside the workplace.

And we should salute those who hold it all together against the odds. They number in their hundreds of millions, they are mainly women, and today is their day.


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