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The new tension in the workplace

By Krystian Seibert - posted Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Recently, Family First’s Senator Steve Fielding and the National Party’s Barnaby Joyce have expressed concern that the Federal Government’s proposed industrial relations changes may take away the right of Australian employees to paid public holidays.

While these concerns have been expressed in the context of the proposed industrial relations changes, they are also part of a broader debate about how long and hard Australians are working. And they are working longer and harder than ever before.

Between 1982 and 2002, the proportion of full-time Australian workers working more than 50 hours a week has increased from 20 per cent to 30 per cent. Women and men are both working harder, with the proportion of women working more than 50 hours a week increasing from 10 per cent to 19 per cent and the proportion of men increasing from 23 per cent to 35 per cent between 1982 and 2002 (ABS, Australian Social Trends 2003). While the average hours worked each week by Australian workers has been stable since 1994, this hides the fact in the past two decades many Australian have been forced to enter the workforce as part-time and casual workers, working less than full-time workers and therefore pushing down the average hours worked per worker.


These changes can, in part, be explained by the reforms that have taken place in the Australian economy over the past 20 years. While these reforms may have yielded benefits such as increased incomes for Australian workers, they have forced Australians to work longer and harder for these incomes, introducing a new tension into Australian society - a tension between work and family life.

Prior to the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating Governments in the 80s and 90s, the Australian economy was typical of most of the world’s developed economies - regulated, protected and inflexible. As the Reagan and Thatcher Governments began to deregulate and restructure the economies of the US and the UK, the Hawke-Keating Government determined that Australia had no alternative but to follow a similar path. Their economic reforms opened the Australian economy to competition, from both within Australian and from overseas, and had the effect of diminishing the role of government as a provider of basic services such as transport, communications and health care.

The Howard-Costello Government continued with this general program of reform, even extending it to sectors such as education. Consequently, the Australian economy in 2005 is unrecognisable when compared with the Australian economy of the late 70s and early 80s. Apart from the fact Australians are financially better off now, our economy is less regulated, less protected and a lot more flexible and dynamic.

Competitive, free market economies are inherently dynamic organisms and it is this characteristic that explains the tension between work and family life. Businesses, the key participants in such economies, maximise their profits by staying competitive. They must be flexible and quick to respond to change. Australian businesses have largely been effective in this as is shown by the fact business profits in Australia have increased by a remarkable 191.38 per cent since 1994.

Australian businesses are, in the end, only the sum of their workers and therefore it is necessary for their workers to be adaptive and flexible as well. Since the early 1980s, this has often meant working longer and harder and spending less time with family. What is unfortunate is while business profits have increased so substantially since 1994, average weekly earnings for Australian workers have only increased by 46 per cent. The fact Australian workers have benefited disproportionately from the dividends of competition and flexibility indicates it is time for government to recognise that Australian workers are working longer and harder. Government needs to develop new policies that attempt to restore a balance to workers’ lives - and the lives of their families.

Both major political parties in Australia support policies that promote a competitive free-market economy, and, rightly so. As history shows us, too much government involvement in the economy can stifle economic growth and it is often unsustainable in the long-term.


However, it is apparent that the Liberal and Labor parties have different attitudes to addressing the tension between work and family life. The Federal Government’s proposed industrial relations changes are an example of this. By replacing the current award safety net with five minimum employment conditions, the changes will remove basic award protections such as overtime and penalty pay, weekend and public holiday pay, carer’s leave and remove the basic statutory right against unfair dismissal for the vast majority of Australian workers.

In addition, the changes place further emphasis on negotiation between individual workers and their employers and will attempt to restrict the right of workers to bargain collectively with their employers. This will weaken the ability of workers to negotiate for the inclusion of important employment conditions such as overtime pay and weekend and public holiday pay in employment agreements.

It is very likely that in the future Australian workers will be working even longer hours and for less pay and therefore the tension between work and family life in Australia will only increase. Rather than removing protections that attempt to maintain a balance between work and family life for Australia workers, governments need to examine policy alternatives that seek to promote such a balance.

Policies worth considering include government-subsidised maternity leave. While government-subsidised maternity leave may require a significant financial outlay from government, there is no harm in conducting a detailed inquiry into whether such a policy is feasible and practical. Alternatively, the introduction of government-subsidised young parents leave could be considered. Such a policy would provide parents with children under five-years-old an additional week or two weeks of paid leave per year.

The government spent over $2.2 billion in 2004 to fund one-off family payments such as the baby bonus (ABS, Income and Community Support Programs 2005), and while any financial assistance for families should be supported, perhaps there is scope for diverting some of this expenditure towards funding a policy of tax deductible family holidays. Such a policy would enable Australian families to maximise their enjoyment of the limited time they have together. Importantly, it would actually encourage families to spend time together, rather than simply giving them money to spend on whatever they like as is the case with the baby bonus.

Australian businesses may be a bit apprehensive of any such proposals, however once they realise that maintaining a balance between work and family life will result in more fulfilled and productive workers, they may be more supportive. All that is necessary is a Federal Government with the initiative to examine such proposals, and that is what we are currently lacking.

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About the Author

Krystian Seibert is a public policy professional based in Melbourne. He has worked as a policy adviser to two Australian Ministers and studied regulatory policy at the London School of Economics.

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