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Paid Parental Leave Speech - Sue Bradford

21 March 2002

Paid Parental Leave Second Debate Speech Sue Bradford - Green Social Services Spokesperson Delivered at 3.30pm

Mr Speaker

The Green Party wholeheartedly welcomes the Paid Parental Leave Bill back to the House today, and we look forward to its imminent passage through its final stages. Unfortunate delays to the Bill last year have meant that some prospective parents who had hoped to benefit from paid leave from next month will now miss out, and we don't want to see people who calculated conception to the July 1st deadline run into problems either.

Taking a broader view, this Bill is long overdue, as generations of working mothers - and fathers - can attest. It's high time that we caught up with most of the rest of the developed world in allowing parents, and particularly mothers, at least some paid time off at the time of the birth or adoption of their child.

The economic reforms of the 80s and 90s and the deliberate erosion of workers' bargaining power - particularly for lower paid workers under the Employment Contracts Act - meant the rollback of many earlier gains. Working weeks were extended, overtime and penal rates lost, casualisation expanded exponentially, and sick and holiday leave cut back or kept to a bare minimum. The bargaining power of low paid workers, among them many women, was reduced hugely.

This meant that trying to get paid parental leave through negotiating with the employer became well nigh impossible for whole groups of workers. The Government, and particularly Laila Harre from the Alliance backed by her colleague Liz Gordon, must be congratulated for the strong stance they've taken in getting this far with actually and finally implementing at least a minimum level of paid parental leave.

And minimal it is, on a number of fronts.

As many submitters have only too clearly pointed out, the fact that the maximum payment is going to be $325 gross a week means that for the majority of workers their parental pay will be substantially less than what they usually earn, unless they are fortunate enough to have negotiated separate provisions with their employer - or unless they are among the very lowest paid groups of workers.

The Green Party agrees with submitters who suggested to the Select Committee that the payment should be set at 100 per cent of earnings up to the average male wage as this would be a much fairer level in terms of acknowledging the true cost of time off work and of having a baby or babies.

As a mother of twins myself I know there are a lot more multiple births with surviving babies these days, and of course the costs just snowball in these situations - and likewise if there are any health or disability problems.

We do appreciate that the Bill's intention is to ensure that the maximum rate of pay will be adjusted by Order in Council from time to time, and it is going to be important that we have Governments in office who are willing and able to do this on a suitably regular basis. Parents must be paid enough so that they can actually afford to take leave, otherwise the scheme will be of little practical use for those people who have no other means of support during that period, and who will end up just going back to work early anyway.

The second area where the Bill reflects its marked minimalism is in the length of time it allocates for leave. Fourteen weeks is the minimum international standard as established in the ILO Maternity Protection Convention, and there is also a recommendation attached to that convention that calls for at least 18 weeks paid leave.

We believe that this initial piece of legislation should have at least attempted to have achieved the 14 weeks, and while we understand the Government's need to keep costs down, we also think a Labour administration should be striving to meet the ILO standards. As so many submitters cogently pointed out to us, 14 weeks is really the minimum time needed to allow mothers to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, to establish breastfeeding, and to enable both parents where possible to bond with their new baby or babies.

The Green Party will accordingly be moving an amendment during the Committee stages of this Bill calling for an extension to the length of leave to 14 weeks.

The third area of the Bill where we have reservations is around the wider issue of eligibility. There are a number of groups of workers who are excluded from being able to access paid parental leave under this legislation, including, firstly, women who have two or more jobs over the relevant 12 month period. Only one employer counts for purposes of eligibility, and yet is it fair that a person who has been working all year, but for different employers, misses out?

Students, too, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the one employer restriction, as even students who are working steadily over a year in jobs of 10 hours a week or more are very likely to have been working in varied and short term jobs in this time.

The Green Party will accordingly be moving a second SOP to amend the Bill so that where workers are otherwise eligible, but have worked for more than one employer during the year, they will still qualify for paid parental leave.

On top of the problems with people having changed jobs during the year, many workers, for example women working for schools, polytechs and universities as cleaners, support staff and so on, are forced to take extended unpaid leave each year because the institution closes down. If this is for over a month, they then risk missing out.

Thirdly, there is the situation of women who are, for example, home care workers, where there is a total lack of consistency in the number and regularity of hours worked. Home care workers are among the most exploited workers in the country. I hope in the slightly longer term we'll see changes to coverage for paid parental leave which will mean these women, often mothers working in the industry for the very reason that they have young children and can't work fulltime, will be covered.

Then there are the huge group of women who are self employed and won't benefit from this legislation. Representatives of rural women came to the committee to ask why they should miss out on a paid break from the milking shed or the apple orchard when they have their babies.

The Green Party believes strongly that self employed people, rural or otherwise, should have eligibility for paid parental leave. Many people in the childbearing years of their lives do go into self employment because it does offer benefits such as flexible working hours and the ability to meet fluctuating demands on time.

However, we understand that as with with other eligibility problems, the Government is not able to make the fiscal commitment to extend paid parental leave to self employed workers at this time. There is also a lot of work that needs to be done on how paid parental leave could actually be administered fairly and well to self employed people, given that an operational system is not already in place as there was with the ACC when the Green Party moved changes to self employed coverage under that legislation.

We will therefore be looking for a commitment from Government that the 2003 review process will be doing some serious work on how paid parental leave could be functionally and effectively achieved for the self employed workers in future.

A further area of concern for us and for a number of submitters was in terms of the interaction between paid parental leave and the repayment of student loans. All too many young women are now adversely affected by huge repayment burdens, and the sense of despair around this only compounds when a baby is on the way.

There is well documented evidence that women often tend to have larger loans than men because they are paid less for working while they study, and because they tend to be paid less when they enter the fulltime workforce.

When submitters raised problems around student loan repayments part of the Government response has been that a recipient of paid parental leave who has no other income during that period would only be required to repay $2.70 a week. Well, like a lot of other 'onlys' when it comes to money, $2.70 is still worth a lot when the pay rate is $325 gross.

The Green Party believes that while they're on parental leave, women should have the interest on their loan written off for that period, and that repayments should be postponed for the duration of the leave. In the interests of alleviating the escalation of debt, we will be moving an amendment to this effect when the Bill comes back for its Committee stages in the House.

Now while I have focused this afternoon on some of the changes and improvements the Green Party like to see to the Bill, I'd however like to finish by reiterating how pleased many of us are that legislation for paid parental leave is finally seeing the light of day Aotearoa New Zealand. Reduced though it is from what it should be, it is still a massive improvement on not having it at all.

We are beginning to move out of the dark ages in terms of recognising the rights of workers, and particularly women, to take time off when their babies are born. There are some that say the 1987 Act is all we need, but as anyone who doesn't have financial resources to fall back on knows all too well, unless at least some assistance is available, for a reasonable period of time, there is no choice but to get back to work as soon as possible.

This Bill is a major step towards ending structural discrimination against women in the paid workforce at the same time as nurturing the health and wellbeing of mother, child and family. I look forward to the completion of its final stages in the House as soon as possible.


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