Chris Walton APESMA CEO comments on proposed new laws that will allow working people to apply for flexible working arrangements if they need to care for a family member.
Good laws don’t just create new offences, new penalties, new requirements or new handouts.
Good laws also drive cultural change.
Longer time APESMA members probably remember the time when maternity leave was only available to those lucky enough to work in the public service.
When Australia decided not only to start putting parental leave provisions into awards but also creating a system where parents had the right to ask for flexible working arrangements – and employers were required to properly consider them – it started a cultural change in our workplaces.
More than any other time in Australia’s history employers were required to not just process an application for flexible working arrangements but fully consider the impacts that were going on in a worker’s family life.
While some employers ignored this important change many others suddenly began to see work-life balance from an employee’s point of view.
And some of the employers who resisted this change ended up getting a legal rap over the knuckles for just throwing the application in the bin.
Well we are potentially on the cusp of another breakthrough that could continue this momentum.
Federal Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, has proposed that any worker who has been with an organisation for more than 12 months should be able to apply for flexible working arrangements to care for any member of their family – and that the employer must consider it.
At the moment only employees who are looking after children too young to attend school or are looking after children with a disability under the age of 18 are able to request flexible working arrangements that their boss must consider.
Under the provisions of the Mr Bandt’s bill if an employee who is also a carer is requesting flexible working arrangements an employer can only refuse on “serious countervailing business grounds”.
And if required this can be contested by Fair Work Australia to make sure that carers needs are properly balanced by the needs of their employer.
There are also many benefits for employers in this move. For many workers faced with choosing staying at work or looking after a loved one the choice is pretty easy – family comes first.
This means that many valued employees are likely to ditch their jobs taking their skills and experience out of the workforce.
While the bill may need some work before it is adopted it is worth remembering that there are many Australian workers who are looking after someone who needs it.
In fact the Australian Carer’s Association estimates that there are 2.6 million Australians who perform some sort of caring duty for a friend or family member right now.
But this is potentially a matter that affects us all. While you may not be a carer at the moment you may well need a carer in the future.
After all Australia has a rapidly ageing population where the number of people aged 65 to 84 years will more than double and the number of people aged 85 and over will more than quadruple.
Don’t we have a responsibility to start that cultural change now before we need some help from our family and friends?
Of course such a system is potentially open to abuse but it is an option the Parliament should consider.
With the great leaps in smartphone technology and with the benefits of the National Broadband Network about to materialise there is more reason than ever for employers to properly consider the real advantages of flexible workplace arrangements for those employees that need them.
But what I’m really hoping for is the wider cultural change that bills like this could drive in our workplaces.
We should all hope to live in a world were employers aren’t instantly dismissive of the range of problems and responsibilities faced by their employees but instead they understand them, sympathise with them and, if appropriate, do what they can to help.
The bill is currently being considered by a parliamentary committee who will release its report before the end of June and will be formally debated later this year.