Elizabeth Webster, 34, a high school teacher, is expecting her second baby around Christmas. She is amongst a small number of mothers entitled for paid maternity leave in Australia, one of the only two developed countries in the world, besides the United States, without a mandatory paid maternity leave policy.
Webster, who has a permanent full-time job in a Catholic school, is entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. "The Catholic Education Office has been the forerunner in paid maternity leave. They also have provision for a two-week paternity leave," states Webster, who can take a further 14 months of leave without pay.
The time she is taking off will affect her seniority. As Webster says, "We are behind other developed and even many of the developing countries when it comes to paid maternity leave. People are reconsidering how many children they should have, mostly settling at a maximum of two."
The rising cost of living, home mortgages and current lifestyle choices are making it essential to have two incomes for survival. When Brisbane-based Charmian Deed, 33, decided to have her first baby seven years ago, she was working as a social worker in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which had the facility to hold her position for a year, but there was no provision for paid maternity leave.
"It was very difficult to cope. My husband was studying and working part-time. I chose to rejoin the work force when my daughter was five months old for various reasons, including postnatal depression, but I don't think women should be compelled for financial reasons to make a choice between being a stay-at-home home mother and quitting the job," says Charmian. She didn't get any paid leave when her son was born two-an-a-half years back.
"Paid maternity leave is important for bonding and breastfeeding the child. Expressing and storing breast milk and leaving the baby in childcare is emotionally and financially draining. In my opinion, at least six-month paid and another six months half-paid maternity leave would go a long way in helping mothers breastfeed their children," says Charmian, a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
In the developed world, where a large part of household and child rearing tasks are still performed by women, juggling motherhood and career can be challenging. "Today, many families do not have grandparents nearby to help. I have chosen to stay at home as I don't want to be away from my children and face paying a significant proportion of my salary on childcare," says Charmian.
Recent national research conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found that only two per cent of mothers were in paid employment with a baby under one month old; 11 per cent, or one-in-10, women had returned to work by the time their child was three months old; 22 per cent were back at work when their child turned six months old; 44 per cent were at work when their child turned one; and 54 per cent had returned to work by the time their infant was 18 months.
About five per cent of women return to work within days or weeks of leaving hospital. The report's author, AIFS Research Fellow Jennifer Baxter, says, "If paid leave is either not available or available for an insufficient time, some mothers may return to work sooner than desired."
According to a recent research conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), only one-third of Australian women have access to paid maternity leave and they are mostly educated, professional, higher-paid women working in large companies or in the public service. Women in social work and less-skilled or less-secure work usually don't get any paid maternity leave. This, however, may change as pressure mounts on the Kevin Rudd-led Australian Labour Government to incorporate a tax-payer funded parental leave scheme in the 2009 budget.
Recently, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Government's independent research and advisory body on economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians, proposed a tax-payer funded parental leave scheme. Under the scheme, mothers would be able to take 18 weeks paid maternity leave and fathers, two weeks, or vice-versa. Both would be paid at the minimum wage rate of AUS$544 (US$1=AUS$1.55) a week, to a maximum per couple of AUS$11,854 before tax, with their employer paying superannuation.
The government-funded leave will be on top of any existing employer-funded scheme and must be taken within six months of giving birth. To qualify, a parent must have worked at least 10 hours a week for 12 months prior to their baby's birth. It is estimated about 140,000 mothers will meet the criteria each year.
However, up to 40,000 working women would not be eligible because of the hours they worked. Like stay-at-home mothers will be eligible for a maternity allowance worth up to AU$6,800 pre-tax. Overall, the proposed scheme would cost the government an estimated AUS$400 million a year once the Baby Bonus of AUS $5,000, which costs AUS$450 million annually, was rolled into the reforms.
Baby Bonus was introduced in 2004 to improve Australia's population growth.
While introducing the scheme, former treasurer Peter Costello urged Australian couples to have "one for the husband, one for the wife and one for the country". The scheme has come under fire, with critics saying the amount is being misused to buy luxury goods and even alcohol and in playing poker. Some young girls have been tempted to have babies just for the bonus, but find they can't look after their children and end up being supported by government welfare.
As of January 1, 2009, families with a combined income of AU$150,000 a year or more will no longer be eligible for the Baby Bonus. Also, instead of a lump sum of AUS$5,000, the bonus will be paid in 13 fortnightly installments of about AUS$385. About 16,000 families are expected to lose out after a new means test is introduced.
According to a news poll commissioned by the National Federation of Australian Women, 80 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women would support a paid maternity leave scheme in which costs are shared by government, employers and employees, with support particularly strong among 18 to 24 year olds.
With Australia formally becoming party to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick is calling on the government to use this occasion to remove its reservation about paid maternity leave under CEDAW, which Australia ratified in 1983.
However, with the coffers drying up as a result of the global financial downturn and the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook pointing to a AUS$40 billion decline in forecast government revenue, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has hinted that paid maternity leave may be deferred.