Resisting the breeding creed

It’s time to fire up for maternity leave, childcare and choice!

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Melbourne International Women’s Day March 2004. Photo: Takver.

Remember when the Howard Government and business world were bellowing about a fertility crisis? They accused women of going on a “fertility strike” — in other words, making our own reproductive decisions — and throwing the economy into peril. When women answered back with the demand for maternity leave, the spin doctors called it “middle class welfare,” even though Australia is one of only two well-off countries in the world without a national scheme. These patriarchs were laying down the law to women: have babies. As Treasurer Peter Costello recently urged couples across Australia: have “one for your husband, one for your wife, and one for the country.” What’s more, stay home to raise them. Just like the good old days. Yep, those pre-feminist movement, pre-pill, pre-choice days.

The domesticating budget. Since he became Prime Minister in 1996, John Howard had already done the groundwork. From Day One, his government launched assaults on childcare and employment opportunities for women. The first Howard budget dramatically cut operational subsidies to community-based childcare, which in 1991 had made up 52% of all centres. By also capping work-related care to 50 hours per week, Howard, for the first time, set out to restrict women’s capacity to work. His next budget reduced the number of new long day care places, forcing centres to close or raise their fees. Overall, the consequences were drastic: by 1998, the proportion of disposable income that a single-income family needed to pay for 40 hours of community-based care shot up from 7.20% in 1995 to 10.16%.

In The End of Equality, Anne Summers gives a snapshot of the immediate impact on low-income women. In Sydney’s western suburbs of Fairfield and Liverpool, 1,547 left their jobs. Says, Summers: “They were removed from the world of employment…All because these women could no longer afford to pay for childcare. And without childcare, they could not work.”

In its first four years, the Howard Government cut $850 million from childcare. In Fairfield and Liverpool alone, women’s participation in the workforce dropped from 50% to 47%. By 2002, government spending per place on childcare was below 1993-1994 levels. Australia rates 26 out of the world’s 28 wealthiest nations on childcare — a repeat of its despicable record on maternity leave.

Where Howard & Co want women is home, and the government has designed the tax and welfare systems to make this happen. For those who can’t or won’t be full-time mothers, there are penalties. The Family Tax Benefit, for example, provides the full Family Tax Benefit Part B to two-parent families with one income — such as the CEO on $3 million a year whose wife stays home. But most two-income families — the more average family form — get nothing. Even worse, assistance with childcare fees starts reducing sharply when the combined income exceeds about $32,000 a year! Then there was the Baby Bonus, a one-off payment for the first child. In theory, the mother gets the tax back that she paid in the year prior to having her baby. But to get the maximum entitlement, she has to stay home for five years!

Election year smoke and mirrors. At no time did the Labor Party have anything important to say about this. That is, not until an election was in the wind. It tuned into the vibes from the ground and picked up what women were saying. Late last year, PM aspirant Mark Latham said he would scrap the Baby Bonus and look at paid maternity leave.

Instead, in April he announced Labor’s “Baby Care Payment.” If elected, mothers would receive up to $3,000 for each baby, increasing up to $5,380 by 2010 (the equivalent of 14 weeks’ minimum wage after tax). It would be means-tested and paid through the welfare system. Its funding would come from abolishing the Maternity Allowance and Baby Bonus and merging various public agencies. According to the Community and Public Sector Union, 1,800 jobs would be lost. Also dumped was the hope of a national paid maternity scheme, which should be every working woman’s entitlement.

The Howard Government howled “Plagiarism!”  In its May budget, it introduced a $3,000 non-means-tested maternity payment to all new mothers, a $600 per child annual rise in the Family Tax Benefit and a $600 one-off payment — widely seen as a crude election bribe.

Such is the spectacle of our so-called democracy’s two major parties dancing to the tune of big business. The corporate world wants women reproducing the next generation of workers and consumers, at no cost to its profits. Even worse, it’s building a lucrative industry around this.

Profits R Us. By June 1998, community-based childcare shrank to 27% of the service, leaving three-quarters to private operators. Free from regulatory caps, these entrepreneurs can charge whatever they like. The CEOs of the two most profitable operations, ABC Learning Centres and Peppercorn Management Group, are on Business Review Weekly’s list of Australia’s richest individuals. Assisted by Howard, the Stock Market rules on the backs of women.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), costs have risen 30% in the past two years and are projected to double by 2008. The average cost today for a child in long day care is $45 – $65 a day. For ordinary families, the problem of spiralling cost is compounded by the shortage of places. A recent survey by the Australian Council of Social Service shows that waiting lists grew last year by 40%. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that places are currently needed for 175,000 children.

More and more working women cannot return to work because they can’t access affordable childcare. Increasingly, Grandmother is turned to for help. The ABS reports that grandparents account for 25% of all childcare for under-fives. Childminding constitutes much of the $74.5 billion worth of unpaid work they perform each year.

Behind the childcare centre’s friendly façade lurks another dark side: the obscene exploitation of its mainly female workforce. The fact that ABC Learning’s Eddie Groves requires his employees (who earn as little as $6 an hour) to supply his centres with music from their home collections indicates how miserable this industry is.

ABC Learning is the biggest for-profit childcare operator in the country. Generously subsidised by the Howard Government, Groves is a good friend of the Liberal Party. Last year, he donated $10,000 to the Queensland branch, and leading party figures such as Jeff Kennett and Andrew Peacock reportedly have associations with the company.

Industry bosses like Groves also make their millions from the pittance they pay and the slavish conditions they impose upon their workforce. The youth wage for a child carer is $5.99 an hour. The entry level for a trained adult carer is $11.90, while a fully qualified carer with a two-year childcare diploma earns $14.14. Hardly enough to live on — or cover childcare for her own children.

Bring it down! The feminist movement fought hard for affordable community childcare, equal employment and pay for women. We can’t let these magnificent wins be reversed by the “pro-family” bullies, in government or opposition. Reproductive choice is possible only when we have economic independence!

There are immediate opportunities to turn the trend around. For starters, this election year offers an alternative to vote for. The Socialist Alliance, a left electoral coalition, calls for free, quality childcare, 12 months’ parental leave that is publicly managed and paid for by the employer, and the guaranteed right of parents to return to their jobs. Australia’s preferential voting system ensures that a vote for SA will throw the current bums out and warn Labor that women and our allies mean business.

The two unions covering childcare workers, the Australian Services Union (ASU) and Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMWU) are running wage claims. Last year, the ASU, representing workers in council-run creches, won a pay equity case with other local council employees, resulting in substantial wage increases. In June this year, the union lodged a claim for a 130% wage rise, amounting to $50,000 – $83,000 a year. The LHMWU, which represents the majority of carers, recently launched a wage campaign for a rise of $100 a week.

It is important that these battles be extended beyond the industrial court into the workplaces and streets — and that the whole community supports them. They will certainly face resistance from the industry tycoons, as already seen in Groves’ legal action against the LMHWU. We should also heed the experience of childcare workers’ counterparts in Scotland. After striking 14 weeks for a national wage rise, nursery nurses were forced by their employer to accept an inferior offer or be sacked under the country’s anti-union laws. Their boss is Scotland’s Labour Party-led local authorities.

What is needed is a broad-based, democratic and militant movement that organises in the workplaces and trade unions, on the campuses and in the streets. Radical Women calls on other organisations and individuals to build a grassroots campaign for free, 24-hour childcare and employer-funded paid maternity leave. Contact us if you want to help organise a Rally for Childcare and Paid Maternity Leave in Melbourne on Saturday, August 28, co-sponsored so far by RW, the Australian Services Union, International Women’s Day 2005 Collective and Socialist Alliance.

As Rosie the Riveter, icon of working women, says: “We can do it!”  We have to. Let’s grab these golden opportunities and set new landmarks that will lead on toward a society that’s a picture of equality and free choice without those damn white picket fences!

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