11 May 2020
Thursday 11 May 2020
SUBJECTS: Industrial relations reform; flexible workplace arrangements.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Joining me lives is Labor MP, Anika Wells. Anika Wells, thank you for your time.
ANIKA WELLS MP, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: Good morning.
HOST: You’ve had some big news this week, announcing you’re expecting twins. What’s it been like expecting in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown?
WELLS: Well, apart from it being the biggest surprise of my entire life, it did give us the opportunity to process it through working from home, the opportunity for me to deal with some pretty significant morning sickness, whilst working from my deck. In that respect, we have been lucky. I'm looking forward to being back here in parliament though and getting on with the important work that I get to do as the Member for Lilley.
HOST: It is raising an interesting question at this time when so many people have adapted to working from home, some more successfully than others. Do you think this will be a new look going out of the coronavirus pandemic, that employers will have to be more understanding about people working from home and working flexible hours?
WELLS: I think it should be. I think the Australian culture is quite antiquated when it comes to flexibility and the flexibility that people need for their caring requirements, whether it is young children or their elderly parents. Australian workers have the right to ask for a flexible working arrangement under our IR system of course, but overwhelmingly those requests are rejected due to operational requirements. We also know that a lot of those operational requirements can be worked around. COVID-19 showed us that you really can work around those things and be flexible when you need to. I think what we need the Australian parliament to lead with now is that we need to be more flexible, and we need to help Australians out.
HOST: Because it is one of those things that does keep a lot of women out of serving in parliament. I know you’re the youngest female MP in the building and you would have watched a number of female MPs drop out when they do have young children. What kind of things would you like to see to support more women so we can get more women serving in parliament?
WELLS: Well, the Morrison government have been talking about IR reform being a key priority for them coming out of COVID-19, and we hear a lot of discussion from them about the arcane nature of our award system and our structures and company tax, but what about how arcane the working system is for workers? The entire system is based around this archaic notion that you need to be at a desk between 9am-5pm to be a productive worker, and the assumption that someone is at home warming a casserole for you to allow you to do that, that’s not what Australian workers look like these days. The average Australian is a 38-year-old working woman with two kids, so why are we all accepting this system that does nothing, or does very little, to support the average Australian? In terms of suggestions of what we could do, the government could provide incentives to employers who do provide onsite care or holiday programs; we could look at reducing the 40-hour working week. Finland is looking at reducing to a four day week, six-hour per day working week, and we could introduce more flexibility about how workers choose their hours. If you are a happy, productive worker, why should you not be able to choose the hours that you work with maybe some collaborative coordination across teams as suits the operational requirements of your team? Obviously, not everyone fits into this mould, not everyone has a white-collar job behind a desk that can canvas these things, but that's the whole point of flexible working. It needs to be flexible for you; it needs to be flexible for your family; it needs to be flexible for your workplace; it needs to work better for everyone.
HOST: The flipside of that, I would say, is that I’ve seen a lot of people saying just how frustrated they are having to mind children at home while they’re trying to get their work done as well, that it does limit their productivity in the meantime. Do you think it is realistic to expect employers to support people to be working while they’re looking after their children?
WELLS: Well, I think that’s what makes COVID-19 not the best practice model because it's unusual to have to do both at the same time for successive weeks. What COVID-19 has thrown up and made more visible, which has previously been too invisible, is all of those hours of unpaid care that are left to Australian households and aren't valued by our economy. I've talked to you before about how our childcare system is in crisis, and for too long the Australian culture has treated childcare as something that is nice for middle-class women to have and not the key economic driver that it is. Things like our school system is based around a 9am-3pm day for kids, but the average worker works 9am-5pm, and filling in the gaps with after school hours care is expensive, and filling in school holiday weeks when you have four weeks annual leave, and the average kid has twelve weeks school holidays, is incredibly difficult for many families. Now I hasten to say that the answer to that isn’t extending the school year, we need to do what’s best for kids. The answer to that is more flexible work.
HOST: Anika Wells, really interesting topic especially at the moment as we’re looking to that post-coronavirus world, so thank you for your time.
WELLS: You’re very welcome.