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Family-friendly workplaces make good business sense

31 January 2018

New Zealand has been excited by the news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is going to have a baby.

Mark Richardson, a panellist on the AM Show, asked Ardern about her plans to have children last year. He was the subject of much anger. Many critics questioned whether a man would have been asked that question.

We now know that Prime Minister Ardern will become one of very few female world leaders to have a baby whilst in office. She and Clarke Gayford are expecting their first child to be born in June. The prime minister will certainly have a lot on her plate, leading the country and mothering a new baby.

People have reacted very warmly to the news and there has been very little criticism. Yet, it is inescapable that the considerable demands of being prime minister will place Jacinda in the same position as many other women in New Zealand who both work and care for their children.

As Ardern said herself, she will not be the first woman to multi-task and not the first woman to work and to have a baby.

Over the years, governments have increased the support given to parents who continue in employment while they have children as well as those who are away from work. The most obvious of these is increased parental leave measures. At present, primary carers are entitled to 18 weeks of paid leave.

However, parents of babies due on or after July 1 will be eligible for 22 weeks of paid leave. From July 1, 2020, that will increase to 26 weeks.

It may be news to some that primary carer payments are not only available for the mother, but can be transferred to a spouse or partner in situations where the mother will not be the primary carer. This allows families more flexibility in organising their work and the care of their children. Indeed Ardern's partner, Gayford, plans to stay at home and be the baby's primary caregiver.

Another little-known fact is that the Employment Relations Act contains provisions for mothers who wish to breastfeed their children or express milk during work hours. Employers should ensure, where reasonable and practicable, that appropriate facilities and breaks are provided.

The Employment Relations Act also gives employees the right to request flexible working arrangements. This can include different hours of work or days of work, or a different place of work for that employee, such as working from home. The ability to request flexible hours is often most valuable to parents or those with other carer responsibilities.

Some readers may feel that employers are subject to weighty obligations, but the benefit must also be borne in mind. Supporting working parents actually makes good business sense. Responsibility for children is being more equally shared between partners. The number of women in paid work is continually increasing and more women are returning to work following the birth of a baby.

A significant benefit to employers is retaining the experience of the working mother in the business, which is often significant. Businesses also save money on recruitment and training costs. Studies show that breastfed babies get sick less often and parents take fewer days off to care for them so the support provided in our legislation is sensible.

Finally, family-friendly measures boost staff morale and enhance business image. Being known as a good place to work makes it easier to recruit the best staff.

When you cast your mind back, attitudes toward working mothers have changed dramatically over the last three or four decades. The favourable reaction to the prime minister's announcement of her pregnancy is indicative of this progress and reflects the change in our society's attitudes and values.

Amidst the excitement of the coming arrival of the "first baby", late last week the Government announced the changes it will make to employment law. There were no real surprises there as most, if not all, proposed changes were raised prior to the election.

A significant change will be that reinstating the employee to their former job will be restored as the primary remedy for unfair dismissal. This may not result in many more workers returning to the workplace as things often become unpleasant as relationships breakdown and employees almost never want to go back. However, it will give employees a little more power to bargain with as the employer certainly won't want them returning to the workplace either.

Other changes will make it easier for unions to do their job and bargain on behalf of their members. It will be easier for unions to enter premises as there will no longer be the need for the employer's consent. Overall collective bargaining is being shifted in favour of unions.

The proposed legislation will no doubt be tweaked and fine-tuned as it moves through Parliament, but the Labour Government's announcement represents a shift in the scales in favour of unions and workers.

My overall impression is that the prime minister is strengthening the role of working women by her decision to have a baby whilst in office. No doubt readers will wish her and Clarke a special time together with their new baby as a family despite the demands of office.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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