Becoming a parent is a privilege, not a workplace right

IT is the clear responsibility of an employer to intervene in a worker’s decision to have a child. They must remove all impediments to a parent’s return to work, including holding open a job, and preserving previous pay and conditions. Oh yes, and throw in free childcare.

If these do not happen, it must be discrimination.

This is the world inhabited by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Start with a privilege, make it a “right’’, and convince government to pass laws to shift costs to the employer and taxpayers. Great work. The ACTU would be proud of you.

The commission’s report, Supporting Working Parents, found “one in two mothers experienced discrimination in the workplace’’ and “a quarter of fathers experienced discrimination related to parental leave’’.

There is a world of difference between discrimination and not accommodating someone’s desires. The signature case was a mother who, having returned to work, was made redundant. She later established her own business, and now employs 60 workers. More fool the employer who sacked her, if indeed pregnancy alone was the reason.

The law at present is that a worker’s needs are considered. There is no obligation beyond that, unless it is specifically a condition of work: read public servants and banks.

The commission asserts that work discrimination “is pervasive and has a cost for everyone — the person affected, their family, their workplace, on employers and on the national economy”. Really?

Bosses do not sack people for the fun of it; there are costs in rehiring.

Imagine the self-employed looking in the mirror, tut-tutting, “I must not discriminate against myself.” The self-employed cannot avoid the cost.

Based on one-sided economics, the commission wants government to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Fair Work Act 2009 to include “a positive duty on employers’’ to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers and requests for flexible working arrangements.

It also wants to establish “a procedural appeals process’’ through the Fair Work Commission. In other words, make the paperwork expensive enough to tilt the risk against replacing the worker.

It wants these major changes made to employment contracts based on flimsy evidence and bad economics.

Evidence for discrimination in the workplace was based on self-assessment, not an objective survey of employees. Among “negative attitudes’’ was the fact “you were viewed as a less committed employee’’. But that may be true in some cases.

Respondents complained that their hours were changed against their wishes. This may have happened regardless or was a necessity of the business. This is not evidence of discrimination.

Respondents complained that their duties were changed against their wishes. It may well have been reasonable to do so. This is not discrimination.

Respondents complained that they did not receive a bonus. But they were not at work to earn it. How would other workers feel if someone were granted a bonus without the effort?

The incidence of “discrimination” has to be heavily discounted. That discount should be applied to the so-called economics of discrimination.

According to the commission, the cost of discrimination that falls on organisations includes loss of talent, knowledge and skills. Presumably, the employer calculates these. Why would they knowingly incur a loss?

The commission argues that higher staff turnover results in increased costs. Of course, it does. Having children interferes with work. The only question is, who pays for it.

The commission quotes the Grattan Institute estimate that if “women’s workforce participation in Australia increased by 6 per cent, the national GDP would be approximately $25 billion higher”.

Presumably, the costs to business in the loss of production associated with entitlements were taken into account. Presumably, the benefits of those who choose to not enter or re-enter the workforce were discounted.

I wonder if mental health costs were tossed in to build a case for economic loss. For example, the commission’s study reported that the major form of the impact of discrimination was “mental health’’.

The question asked, “What impact, if any, did this (mal)treatment have on you?’’ The respondent was asked to tick the box “affected your mental health’’. What the hell does that mean? What level of impairment counts as a mental health problem? What did it have to do with work?

The Prime Minister’s paid parental leave scheme is in trouble ­because it costs. Getting to nir­vana, where everyone else pays everyone’s costs of entering the workforce, in order to gain the pay-off of greater productivity is difficult. Passing laws as if these are rights is a presumption.