A new work and care system


At some stage of our lives, we all have to consider the needs of others at the end of or during our working day, be they ageing parents, children, disabled relatives or even friends in need. But our current work culture doesn’t adequately accommodate those needs, and that needs to change.

By Senator Barbara Pocock

When I took on the role chairing the Senate Select Committee inquiring into Work and Care, I relished the opportunity to dig deep into the situation of Australian workers – not just those employed in the care industry, but of all workers who grapple with the responsibility of caring for others while holding down a job.

We all at some stage of our lives have to consider the needs of others at the end of or during our working day, be they ageing parents, children, disabled relatives or even friends in need. When our responsibilities in the workplace spill over the traditional boundaries of ‘knock-off time’, we find ourselves juggling competing priorities of whether to answer a last-minute email or after-hours phone call, or play with the kids or take the dog for a walk.

The incessant creep of availability where we feel the need to respond to work messages after hours is driven partly by technology, which has basically put the office in our pocket 24/7. That’s partly through the demands of our jobs and partly by our own insecurities – that is, feeling the need to be across all our work-related tasks all of the time.

Some of this has resulted from the continual downsizing that has plagued our workplaces since the 1980s, and the accompanying ‘do-more-with-less’ attitude of management. Far from the utopian ideal of shorter working hours and greater industrial democracy, we have ended up in the new millennium working longer hours with higher levels of work-related stress than previous generations.

A system not fit for purpose

Now we face a crisis with around a third of our workforce experiencing physical tiredness, stress and anxiety, and mental fatigue. A recent report from the Australia Institute shows Australian workers are working an average of six weeks unpaid overtime each year, costing households over $92 billion in unpaid wages across the economy. This ‘time theft’ is costing the average worker something like $315 each fortnight.

What we have found through more than 100 submissions to our Work and Care inquiry is a situation where our most vulnerable workers – including those in the care economy, the gig economy and low-paid feminised industries – are struggling with higher living costs, inadequate childcare and an expectation to work outside of their contracted hours while still giving care and attention to family members.

Census data shows that five million Australians are combining work with childcare or unpaid care given to a person with a disability, long-term illness or old age. Our work and care ‘system’ is no longer fit for purpose.

Widespread hours of unpaid overtime are just part of the problem. There are many more. In regional hearings, like the committee’s visit to Albany in WA, we heard about a massive deficit in childcare services that is locking women in particular out of the workforce. That only compounds the labour shortage that plagues regional Australia.

This is why the committee is recommending higher wages for carers, free childcare and the right to flexible work arrangements that will benefit all Australian workers. We need to recognise the inherent value of care work, not only to individuals and families but to the economy. The Greens have called on the government to legislate to improve the rights of working carers and to ensure that time off for workers is respected by their employers.

Protecting the right to knock off

It is so good to see Queensland teachers fighting for a right to log off from work, recharge their batteries and spend time with family and friends without fear of being interrupted by a work call – and to see this recognised in their enterprise agreement. More and more workers are realising that their leisure time is being co-opted by the creeping demands of out-of-hours work tasks encroaching into their evenings and weekends.

The new enterprise agreement for teachers at state schools in Queensland encourages teachers to switch off from work-related emails, text messages and phone calls when they’re not on the job, except in exceptional circumstances. The Greens want everyone to have a right to disconnect. The Australia Institute’s research shows widespread support for this, with 84 percent in favour of such a right being included in the National Employment Standards.

The pressure on workers to be available at all hours, particularly when working remotely, clearly has serious implications for mental and physical health and increases work-related stress. This is an issue that has come into sharp focus for many of us during the pandemic when we have had to juggle work and care responsibilities at home. The Greens want to see a right to disconnect from work in federal law, and Labor has agreed in the interim report of the Work and Care inquiry to back our push.

We will continue working with the government to get everyone a right to disconnect and will keep pushing for the reform. Availability creep, where employees feel they need to be available all the time to answer emails and calls or catch up on work, has increased markedly during the pandemic and this has serious implications for mental health and work-related stress. Poor sleep, stress, burnout, degraded relationships and distracted carers are just some of the ways damage is caused by workers feeling they should be available at all hours.

Enterprise agreements, such as the one the Queensland Teachers Union have just struck, are a strong indication that Australian employers are finally recognising that the ability of workers to enjoy quality rest time away from the pressures of their jobs is a basic right that should be protected. Our Senate Select Committee is examining how caring responsibilities can be combined with work to create better outcomes for carers and those they care for, as well as for the economy. All Australian workers will potentially benefit from the changes proposed in the committee’s interim report.

A new way of working

The report calls for the right to request flexible work arrangements as well as 26 weeks of paid parental leave. Millions of Australians are trying to balance the demands of their working life with the care of others, and we need to update our workplace laws to protect the rights of workers in the modern economy.

The care sector itself is suffering with issues of parental leave, low wages and the lack of flexible work arrangements contributing to poor outcomes for working carers – who are predominantly women. This would deliver personal, social and economic benefits. If women’s participation in the workforce matched the rate of men in Australia our GDP would go up by more than $350 billion over the next 30 years.

The interim report recommends a review of workplace laws to introduce a right to disconnect from work, protecting remote workers from being contacted by employers outside their contracted hours. It also recommends a duty for employers to reasonably accommodate requests for flexible working arrangements and for changes to the Fair Work Act. This would ensure employers implement rostering practices that are predictable, stable and give workers real say over their shifts.

We want to make sure that employers genuinely consider the views of their employees when they are proposing changes to their rosters. At the inquiry, we heard evidence from working carers that last minute shift changes make it impossible to manage their responsibilities, and that they have a negative impact on their families including those, like grandparents, doing unpaid care work. Labor’s first budget privileges billionaires while highly feminised workforces like care, hospitality and retail remain overworked and underpaid.

Our committee will complete hearings in December with a final report tabled in the Senate in February 2023. We plan to make a difference with a legislative program and recommendations for many of the actions – we hope – to follow.

Barbara Pocock is a senator for South Australia and the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care.

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