Making time and taking our time

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Something went wrong between the dreams of post-war workers and our modern working lives. I remember the push for the 35 hour week and the dreams of new technologies that would see workers replaced by robots and more leisure for all. That dream has stayed in the realms of science fiction. Rather than reduced hours we have seen an intensification of work. By the turn of the last century the working week had reached record lengths, as the five day week turned into the 24/7 week and the role of governments as arbitrators was undermined by policies and politicians. Rather than using technological change to redistribute time and resources more equitably, we have been driven to work ever harder in pursuit of wealth and individual success.

The idea of Australia as the land of long weekend has disappeared into our mythic past. This is at odds with what most Australians say they want. According to opinion polls quoted below, one of the major issues we’d like addressed at the next Federal election would be policy changes to allow better balancing of our various roles in families, communities and paid work.

In the last couple of weeks two reports have claimed that too many of us are time poor and relationship challenged because time spent in workplaces is displacing family and community relationships. The Relationships Forum claims catastrophic damage from changes in workplace demands and patterns in its report ‘An unexpected Tragedy’ and the HREOC report ‘It’s about time’ reinforces the need for action as it carefully spells out the conflicts that people reported in being parents and carers. The Forum report illustrates what Australians say they want in the following terms:

‘In 2006, 77% of surveyed Australians agreed with the statement: “A government’s prime objective should be achieving the greatest happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth”. And when asked “What is the most important thing for your happiness?”, almost 60% of surveyed Australians cited partner/spouse and family. A further 8% specified community and friends. It would appear, then, that a large proportion of the Australian population believes that a primary responsibility of government is to support and protect their happiness, founded in relationships with their family, friends and the broader community. At the same time, only one quarter of those surveyed think that life is getting better’

Both reports make it clear that time is the basis for good personal relationships in families, communities and workplaces, which need to be in balance. These reports do not offer anything very new but sum up other studies and use experts and submissions to point out that government policies and employer attitudes make it hard to combine the demands of paid workplaces with other aspects of life. Time is the currency of relationships, as the phrase ‘spending time with people’ demonstrates. Our ability to allocate time is often the best indicator of whether we are able to meet our needs and create some balance and satisfaction in our lives. Being time poor is a real problem for many: no time for family and friends; no time for doing things; no time to think, talk or play if our working lives displace the rest of our lives.

So why does this trend continue if its negative side-effects are so apparent? In practice, there are many barriers to our making sensible and reasonable use of time. Obviously, few of us are completely in control of our time because we have commitments, obligations and expectations from others that we may need to make time for, willy nilly. However, one of the roles of governments should be to ensure that as citizens we can have enough control over our lives to be able to contribute to others’ wellbeing as well as our own.

Current workplace regimes have significantly weakened the roles of the independent umpire, the arbitrator and conciliator that were so much part of our industrial landscape. While some of this was an inevitable result of the changing nature of paid work, such as a shift from factory based production to service industries and much more part time employment, it is not clear why this should change the basic assumption that there is a power imbalance between bosses and workers that requires support for collective negotiation and for ensuring that our basic needs, such as time, are non-negotiable legislative minima.

While there is still some regulation in the new IR system, it is diminished in ways which cast individual workers with little bargaining power almost entirely adrift. There are five basic prescribed conditions but even these can be traded, and the vaunted flexibility of individual agreements leaves unequal workers and bosses face to face, at times without access to an umpire. The agency, (OEA) that is designated to offer support to workers in their negotiation is grossly understaffed and inactive, despite legislative powers that suggest they should be intervening to ensure that the promised flexibility is not one sided. As the OEA no longer produces any statistics, nor monitors agreements for fairness, there is no way of finding out what is happening. Without statistics we are left to quote Minister Hockey, ‘a possible voter backlash later this year’ (25/3/07 Meet the Press Ch 10) as the only response.

Family Responsibilities and Time

The area in which these contradictions are most likely to emerge is in the tensions between child rearing and paid work. It seems self evident that at least one parent of a baby needs time off, and that when they are in the paid workforce, they need time flexibility to meet their parenting responsibilities. Both the reports cited above attack the lack of attention paid to these problems in current Federal government policies. The reports both clearly demonstrate the need for a suite of interlinked measures that clearly indicate public and political understanding of the importance of parenting and care. Policies are needed that would assist all women to take time off after the birth of their children, ensure that a parent could spend time with the new baby, and encourage good relationships and care when the primary carer returns to work -including breastfeeding, flexible hours and part time options. Affordable, accessible, quality care needs to be easily available.

However, the indications in March 2007 are that these issues are not yet on the policy agenda and in fact, the present government may be moving in the opposite direction. While it trumpets its commitment to ‘flexibility ‘ to meet the demands of care and paid work, its current workplace relations legislation gives little or no power to workers to negotiate such conditions. The Minister’s response to HREOC recommendations for some minor adjustments to give employees increased negotiating options was to claim these were not necessary as full employment would empower employees versus employers. The assumption is that low paid part time and casual waitresses have the same bargaining power as men whose skills are in short supply in the mining sector.

The entry of many mothers into paid work and fathers’ desires to be more active parents, together with the intensification and extension of working hours has greatly increased tensions around time, shifts, predictability and pay rates. These tensions have broad policy implications that can’t be dealt with on an individual basis: specific social policies – not just economic policies – are needed to enable time off and foster alternative ways of engaging in paid work. Yet both of the relatively conservative reports introduced above show that our needs as parents and carers – or simply as social beings – are not being considered.

Why it seems hard to put time on the agenda

The problem seems clear and the research shows that time is a major public concern – so why is this not high on the agenda of the major parties? In comparison with most other OECD countries we lag behind on child care provision and costs, paid maternity leave, and the right to ask for part time work, just to name some basics. Yet even the critics of the present government policies seem to balk at the argument that the current system needs a root and branch review that puts time balance at the core of good employment practices.

The current government’s pro employer bias makes a mockery of their claimed ‘liberal’ tendencies, as manifested in their preference for individual agreements. What evidence there is shows that women’s wages are falling compared to men’s. This is a problem for women, but also for men, as it affects men’s choices to take time off. Individual agreements would be dropped under the ALP, but there are other possible problems, as the ALP have already moved away from making any other definite commitments (Australian 24/7 Labor Dumps Maternity leave plan), despite their interest in the whole IR question.

Neither of the parties apparently fishing for ‘family‘ votes have adopted the issue of time as a core policy area. As a very long term policy wonk with an interest in the area, I think this can only be explained through a gender based analysis that sees mainly male and male oriented politicians deeming this unimportant. Too many on both sides still demote anything like ‘work and family issues’ into the soft policy ‘women’s areas’ where these are still seen as personal choices, not really the role of government, or at least not a priority. The question of how one can make choices without power or access to services is not answered.

If political leaders were more conscious of the difficulties of long working hours for male parents, more attention would be given to paid parental leave, good and affordable services and work flexibility. In Parliament House, with its masculine cultures of antisocial working hours, there is no child care centre, most members are still male and those of either sex with children have compliant partners, family or other services. So these issues are not high on their consciousness.

The result is that political parties still fail to reflect what really happens in families and the community. Surveys showing discomfort about the future as detailed above are useful indicators of a generalised malaise, a discomfort about the directions of society, even though financially most people are relatively well off. Their lack of time to make relationships and nurture friendships plays out in wider anxieties about the future – which seems a fearsome place full of threatening strangers. A more civil society needs time to think and act, and without making time for such civilities, our quality of life is undermined. It is about time that we, as concerned citizens, engaged in a serious political push to put time on the Federal election agenda.

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