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PM's Address at EEO Trust Work and Life Awards

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister

Address at EEO Trust Work and Life Awards

Hyatt Regency Auckland 7.40 pm 2 September 2004

Thank you for inviting me once again to present the EEO Trust’s Annual Work and Life Awards.

First I would like to acknowledge the continuing work of the EEO Trust. The Trust has defined itself as a centre of excellence ever since its inception in 1991, and I commend its leadership on EEO issues over these past thirteen years.

Those who have entered tonight’s awards understand well the business and workplace benefits of work-life balance. You also appreciate that your staff are your greatest assets. That’s why you have looked outside the square and looked for new ways to improve recruitment and retention rates, reduce absenteeism, promote employee satisfaction and loyalty, and improve productivity.

It’s good to see that initiatives which were once the domain of only very committed and progressive workplaces are now becoming more standard practice. The principles and practice of work-life balance are becoming more deeply embedded in the culture of many more workplaces. I thank all those who entered tonight’s awards for the leadership they have given on these issues.

International Context

Many countries like New Zealand are striving to achieve better work-life balance.

In the past the focus was on how to support women balancing work and family responsibilities. Governments tended to respond with initiatives of direct benefit to families, and employers were encouraged to respond with family friendly policies.

Over time, however, the complexity of the issues which put pressure on work-life balance have become better understood, and responses to them have become more sophisticated. Now, work-life balance is more likely to be understood within a broader decent work agenda, and it is more widely appreciated that productive economies depend on skilled, healthy, and productive work places.

As well, developed countries face new population challenges, including declining fertility, an ageing workforce, and the changing nature of families. These challenges require new responses too.

The need for healthy and productive workplaces must now translate into a broader interest in the health and well being of all employees.

There is, for example, more awareness of the importance of work-life balance for men, who have been more likely to put in excessive hours in their paid work. The EEO Trust Survey of fathers in New Zealand last year showed that around eighty per cent of the fathers surveyed would like to spend more time with their families.

The New Zealand Situation

In New Zealand, the economic imperatives for work-life balance are growing. As our population ages, the challenge is to maximise the full potential of the workforce. The global pinch of skill shortages means that our work places need to be more innovative and more responsive to what matters to staff, if they are to recruit and retain them.

In meeting our work force needs, the first place to look is to our own people. We do have a lower rate of participation by women, for example, than do top performing Scandinavian economies. The nature and quality of our work places and working conditions does have a bearing on whether those who are presently under represented will come forward to share their talents.

It’s clear to me that generating higher growth and productivity will also be linked to removing the barriers to participation in the paid workforce. The government’s big investments in paid parental leave, quality early childhood education, and the improvements to working family incomes are part of the answer. But so are initiatives in the work place of the kind tonight’s award winners have implemented.

For many of the organisations entering this year’s awards, a culture which encourages work-life balance has become a natural expression of their organisational values. That culture has become integral to what the business is.

As well, the commitment of individual managers and employees is critical in making work-life balance policies part of a culture of best practice in the workplace. But those committed leaders need to be well supported Small and medium sized organisations, for example, can find it hard to develop the systems which are needed to support a productive and health workforce. The work of the EEO Trust, and the leadership demonstrated by this year’s award entrants are very important and the government also has a leadership role to play.

Work-Life Balance Project

I spoke at last year’s function about the Work-Life Balance Project the government had established. Research undertaken for the Project suggests that people get caught up in the day to day business of living and that life can get out of balance without one being aware that that is happening. Often only a crisis or major event in ones life forces a re-evaluation.

The researchers spoke with people about the impact of imbalance on their lives. While participants tended to focus more on the impacts outside the workplace, the impact at work, such as through the deterioration of relationships, increased mistakes, lower quality of work, and decreased job satisfaction also came through strongly.

The issues raised in this research, and in the more than 700 other public contributions to the work-life balance project, identified key concerns for New Zealanders.

Employees raised issues ranging from the intensity of work, to long hours and precarious work arrangements, adequacy of income and carer responsibilities. Issues raised by employers suggest that the size of their organisation has a bearing on their ability to develop initiatives for work-life balance, with smaller employers finding it more difficult and expensive. The work-life balance arrangements described by employers and self-employed people suggested that they frequently operated within tight margins and found it difficult to take time off. Community and voluntary sector concerns centred on the difficulty of attracting and keeping volunteer staff. It is notable that a number of community organisations went to some lengths to provide conditions supporting work-life balance as they did not have the resources to compensate staff with higher wages.

Officials are now considering what practical measures might assist people in balancing their businesses and working lives. They will look at which aspects of the problems or gaps in policies relate most appropriately to government, or to firms, families, communities, and individuals.

Pay and Employment Equity

Last year when I attended the EEO Trust Awards, the government had just set up a Taskforce on Pay and Employment Equity in the public sector.

It has since reported, identifying factors which impact on achieving pay and employment equity, including;

women’s position in the workforce; the undervaluing of jobs women do; and how work is organised.

The Taskforce recommended a five-year plan of action to address those factors in the public sector. A dedicated unit in the Labour Department has been set up to work on implementation, with a steering group drawn from across the public sector overseeing the work of the unit and providing leadership for the action plan.

Paid Parental Leave

The government has also decided to extend the duration of paid parental leave. It moves from the twelve weeks introduced in 2002 to thirteen weeks in December this year, and to the ILO standard of 14 weeks by December 2005. We are also extending access to the scheme so that employees who have worked for the same employer for six months or more will also qualify for paid parental leave.

Last year 16,000 women accessed the scheme, and feedback has been very positive. We are examining how the scheme might be extended to the self employed as well.

Working for Families

The Working for Families package In the Budget is also positive for low and modest income working families with children. Apart from the increases in family income and accommodation supplement, there are specific initiatives supporting families needing their children cared for while parents work.

From October, the rate of the Out of School Care and Recreation (OSCAR) subsidy for school age children will come into line with the Childcare Subsidy rate for pre-school children, and both rates will increase by 10 per cent. Both rates are scheduled to increase by a further 10 per cent from 3 October 2005.

Then from 1 April 2005, new funding into early childhood education will make it more affordable for families overall. And from 1 July 2007, three and four year old children will be able to receive twenty hours free education in community based services.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me thank the EEO Trust once again for its leadership on work-life balance issues, and thank all entrants to the awards for their commitment to making workplaces healthier, happier places.

To the winners, congratulations on setting new benchmarks for best practice, and showing others how to get the best results.

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