Executive Summary

This Interim Report of the Select Committee on Work and Care draws on over 100 submissions and witness evidence presented at hearings held in a range of locations. We thank all for their contributions at this mid-point of our work.
A growing number of Australian workers have responsibility for the care of someone else—perhaps children, an ageing parent or someone with a disability or chronic illness—while they are working. Over the life cycle, many workers move in and out of work around caring, or combine their jobs with the care of others.
Changing social norms, high levels of female education and economic conditions mean that Australian women are increasingly engaged in the labour market in a similar pattern to men.
At the same time, an ageing population is creating new care demands, while a growing body of science tells us how important quality early childhood education and care is to infants’ developing brains and life chances. Work and care challenges are likely to continue to grow, and to become more complex.
Millions of Australians balance work and care. They seek and need to maintain a job and income security, with adequate wages, active participation and flexibility in the workforce, access to appropriate leave entitlements, and a supportive care system for those who need it. This includes access to affordable and suitable respite and Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), as well as appropriate and targeted aged care, health care and disability support services along with employment opportunities.
However, the architecture of work and care is not adequate to our current challenges—let alone our future. It has not adapted adequately to our changing work and social system.
As a result, many of those with caring responsibilities who would like a job cannot work, while others work less hours than they would prefer or are subject to constant roster variations and the insecurity that brings to family life. For some, combining work and care creates stress, or puts pressure on grandparents or other unpaid carers, because work is inflexible, or the care system is inadequate or unaffordable.
The Australian workforce in the care economy is in crisis, facing low wages, overwork, understaffing, and a lack of respect—driving many childcare and aged care workers to leave a job that they love.
The committee has heard a great deal of evidence about how the work and care economy, which underpins our economic system, is failing. However, we have also heard that things can be different—as they are in other comparable countries which have adapted their work and care systems to more effectively meet these challenges.
This inquiry is examining the ways in which the combination of work and care responsibilities is impacting on the lives and wellbeing of Australians. In doing so, the committee recognises that there are many other factors which can contribute to the outcomes for working carers—including their income and security of employment, their place of residence, their personal characteristics, the nature of the surrounding community, and family circumstances.

The need for reform

There are many multifaceted and interlinked issues for working carers, including the gendered nature of caring responsibilities and employment in the care sector, low wages and insufficient hours. There are also inadequacies within the early learning education and care system, issues with parental leave, the availability of flexible work arrangements, and the workplace relations framework. These are all contributing to poor outcomes for working carers—who are predominantly women.
Workforce participation in Australia, particularly for women and carers, is low by international comparison1—resulting in a national skills shortage, a lack of employment pathways and disproportionate part-time hours for Australian women and carers.
Many studies have demonstrated the positive economic contribution that would be made to families, households and the national GDP through women and carers increasing their participation in paid employment. According to the Minister for Women, if women’s workforce participation rate matched men, Australia would increase GDP by 8.7 per cent or $353 billion by 2050.2 These issues received considerable attention at the recent Jobs and Skills Summit.

Issues raised in evidence

Much of the evidence we have heard consistently moves in the same direction on several key themes. Even in these early stages of the committee’s work, there is a clear consensus on the key issues, across the spectrum of stakeholders.
The gendered nature of caring responsibilities and employment in the care sector, the inadequacies of the childcare system, the issues with parental leave and the overall lack of flexibility in the employment framework are just some of the areas where all agree that change is needed, and soon. Decent work—that is, secure, predictable, fairly paid, with paid leave to care—is essential to an improved work and care system.
The committee concludes that Australia’s work and care system is no longer fit for purpose given the make-up of our workforce and the economic challenges Australia faces, especially as we recover from the pandemic and learn its lessons for our work and care system. Our current system is not addressing gender inequality challenges, and it particularly disadvantages some population groups.
The structure of this interim report reflects three main areas where the evidence before the committee has suggested that reform is essential:
Firstly, in the paid care system (chapter 3);
Secondly, in the income support system that underpins work and care (chapter 4);
Thirdly, in the workplace relations and legislative system that regulates work (including paid parental leave) (chapter 5).
Any changes to policies and the work and care employment and support framework must be sustainable into the future and be adaptable to a fast-evolving employment environment. The gig economy and the increased use of shift work and unpredictable rostering are prime examples of how the nature of work is changing, and how workplace laws are not keeping pace with that change—especially with regard to job security, flexibility and leave entitlements.
The questions before the committee are what care services, income support and workplace laws need to be reformed, implemented, or perhaps done way with entirely, to best support people in a variety of work and care contexts across the country, at all stages of life. The committee looks forward to exploring these issues further as it continues its work and develops it final report with further recommendations for change.

Action Now: some immediate recommendations

As this report and the committee’s final report will show, the evidence is clear that there are many adverse and sometimes longterm challenges and consequences for people trying to balance work and care - and sometimes for those they care for. The evidence is also clear that the case for more immediate change is pressing—some of it urgent—to improve the lived experience of working carers.
In this interim report the committee makes a start on seven more immediate challenges which received considerable attention in hearings and submissions and for which specific remedies were discussed. We look forward to their consideration in the next phase of the committee’s work, along with discussion of longerterm challenges.

1. Data poverty: We need more data about working Australians

Reform of our work and care system relies on better information and analysis about current circumstances and their consequences for workers, their families and workplaces. Evidence before the committee indicates a problem of ‘data poverty’ around work and care, which prevents analysis of the extent or nature of the issues, and therefore, there is a lack of insight into how reform of the work and care framework can be evaluated.
The committee recommends that new data on work and care be collected through, for example, new questions in the Census and/or a new regular survey of a representative group of workers, say every five years, to determine the extent and nature of the interaction of work and care responsibilities across Australia. This would generate data to inform analysis of the work and care system, and the evaluation of reforms.

2. Early childhood education and care and First Nations communities

Many working parents find themselves with the tough choice between looking after their children and remaining engaged with paid employment and possibly progressing their career. ECEC is a huge piece of the puzzle for balancing work and care in an effective way, given that so many people in Australia who are carers, are caring for children.
The lack of adequate access to ECEC, including ‘childcare deserts’, low wages and high demands for workers, high care costs, and working carers being employed outside of ‘core hours’ or for unpredictable hours, are all contributing to this issue. The committee will return to the issue of ECEC in its final report.
However, there are particular and pressing issues for First Nations communities which the committee has focused on in this interim report, where the evidence suggests that a lack of adequate and long-term funding to culturally appropriate ECEC in regional, remote and some urban areas is having a detrimental impact on First Nations children. This has been recognised in the recent Government announcement of increased access to at least 36 hours of subsidised care per fortnight for First Nations children.
The committee heard convincing evidence that quality, culturally appropriate, community managed, and trauma-informed ECEC is a vital means of improving the lives of First Nations children, assisting their parents into study and work, and interrupting intergenerational trauma.
Further, the activity tests associated with subsidised child care have a disproportionate impact on First Nations families and parents, holding them back from work and study. The committee therefore recommends an immediate increase in long term funding to First Nations ECEC, and removal of the activity tests for First Nations people to receive child care subsidies.

3. Paid Parental Leave

It is already apparent to the committee that in relation to Paid Parental Leave (PPL), Australia is lagging well behind comparable nations, to the detriment of both children and their working parents. In line with other OECD countries, the committee recommends extending the PPL period to 26 weeks.
It has been shown that longer PPL has benefits for carers, children and for reducing the gendered impact of child care3—the overseas experience shows that an extended PPL period, along with ‘use it or lose it’ provisions to involve both parents in the early care of babies, has increased the participation of male and secondary partners in taking leave with long term consequences for their involvement in unpaid work and care in the household.
The committee will continue to examine the evidence about PPL schemes elsewhere and consider whether PPL in Australia should be extended beyond 26 weeks, and the benefits which might arise from doing so.

4. Lifting wages across the care economy

The care economy is driven by women, who make up the majority of the workforce in aged care, child care and disability care. The pay of these jobs has been systemically undervalued for decades, and these sectors are now also facing very troubling workforce shortages.
The inadequacy of wages in these sectors is having a direct impact on people leaving the care workforce. A better funded and resourced care system, with higher pay and decent working conditions, would generate greater workforce participation, especially for women, and would positively impact on the national economy.
Through this report, the committee recognises a range of Government measures and actions that will help address these issues, including:
improving the bargaining system to address low paid sectors;
making submissions to the Fair Work Commission to lift the pay of aged care workers;
introducing an Equal Remuneration Principle;
making gender equity an object of the Fair Work Act; and
establishing new expert panels on pay equity and the care sectors.
The committee will continue to consider ways to sustainably fund and support a skilled and properly remunerated workforce, but in the meantime recommends that the Government develop an analysis of care work classifications and structures, which recognises different types of care work and the inherent value in such work, with a view to systematically addressing underpayments, rewarding skill and experience, and lifting wages across the care economy.
The workplace relations mechanisms for achieving this should be a priority of workplace relations reform, responding to the small size of many workplaces where care workers are employed and the fact that much of the care sector has a single source of employment funding at the top of the work-care supply chain: government.

5. Decent work and ‘Roster Justice’

It is clear, at the half-way stage of the committee’s work, that the workplace relations framework does not reflect, or appropriately respond to, the lived reality for working carers and has not kept pace with changing workplace environments and the needs of employees.
The committee is of the view that leave entitlements in the workplace relations framework do not adequately consider the role of people who both work, and care for others. The committee will continue to consider this issue, including the possibility of separating personal leave from carer’s leave—these are two very different types of leave which many witnesses have argued should not be in the same ‘bucket’—and finding ways to ensure that all workers have access to paid leave for caring, rest and recovery.
The committee heard extensive evidence about the nature of rostering in many workplaces and the impact of unpredictable, short hours rosters on working carers, even in workplaces where tasks are very predictable and constant. Some refer to this as a lack of ‘roster justice’.
The committee makes some initial recommendations for change within workplace rostering systems, particularly for casual and parttime employees, in recognition that the unpredictable nature of rostering has real and adverse impacts on working carers by creating work—and therefore income—insecurity.
We recommend:
improved rostering rights for employees, and in particular working carers, to ensure that employers are implementing predictable and stable rosters, including fixed shift scheduling; and
requiring that employers genuinely consult and consider the needs and views of employees about proposed roster changes, including the views of working carers.

6. Flexibility in the workplace

People balancing work and care responsibilities need workplaces to better understand the unpredictable nature of care. However, the committee has received strong evidence that basic forms of flexibility are not available to many employees.
Working carers are at risk of having to reduce their hours or leave paid employment, if caring responsibilities become too great, or flexibility at work is not available. While some employees have the right to request flexible work arrangements, the evidence before the committee considers the current workplace relations treatment of flexibility is no longer fit for purpose.
Other countries now have experience of different approaches to flexibility and their higher rates of labour participation attest to their positive benefits. The UK for example has made the right to request flexibility available to all employees, without any waiting period. It aims to maximise workforce participation and de-stigmatise the utilisation of flexible arrangements, especially for men and fathers.
However, in Australia the right is restricted in its availability, and lacks an appeal mechanism or penalties for employers who breach provisions. Given the strength of evidence before the committee we are strongly of the view that reform is needed to the Fair Work Act to rectify this imbalance and better support working carers; this reform could be accomplished in the short term with important benefits for working carers.
We recommend:
making the right to request flexible work available to all workers and removing any stigma attached to its use when confined to carers;
amending the grounds for employers to refuse flexible arrangements, from ‘reasonable business grounds’ to ‘unjustifiable hardship’ (as in the Disability Discrimination Act);
introducing a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate flexible working arrangements;
establishing an appeal process that addresses not only the procedure and right to request flexibility, but also includes the ability of employees to appeal an employer’s decision to refuse the request;
requiring consultation about flexibility requests; and
finally, creating a penalty on employers for failure to properly enact this right.

7. A right to disconnect from work

The pandemic has seen a growing number of workers working from home, and this has changed the lives of many workers. It has created new patterns of work that have proved productive and saved many households commuting time, which has been invested in family life and work. Rapid changes in technology enable this.
At the same time, the committee has heard evidence that new ways of working have for some workers weakened the boundaries around working hours and increased working time. For some working carers this means work reaches into their home and caring time, increasing stress.
Recent workplace innovations have seen bargaining take place to contain working hours and a number of European countries, and some employers, have moved to establish a ‘right to disconnect from work’.
The committee recommends that such a right be considered for Australian workplace relations law to enable and support productive work from home and flexibility of work, while ensuring workers have the capacity to disconnect from their job and to work their contractual hours. Such a right could have similar provisions to those recommended above for the right to request flexibility—in terms of applicability, appeal, penalties and so on.

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