As unemployment bites, unions increase membership, push for paid maternity leave

Union membership has increased by 56,000 according to Bureau of Statistics data released 17 April, with more than 1,750,000 workers being union members and unions now covering 24% of employees (excluding casuals). While union membership is up, unemployment is also up with an official unemployment rate of 5.7%. But according to the Australia Institute the real rate of unemployment may be 11.7 per cent, when 'hidden unemployed' are taken into account.

David Richardson, from The Australia Institute said "For every person officially recorded as unemployed there are some 1.2 people, the hidden unemployed, who would also like to work and are available to start," The Australia Institute has recommended that unemployment benefits - Newstart Allowance - should be increased by $56 a week for singles and $64 for couples to bring their payments in line with the age and disability pensions. (Increasing the Newstart Allowance: A necessary part of equitable fiscal stimulus )

ACTU President Sharan Burrow said the new data on union membership was positive considering most of the Howard Government’s WorkChoices IR laws were still in place when the ABS survey took place. "In these tough economic times it is especially important for workers to be members of a union." she said. "Unions help protect jobs as well as workers' wages and conditions."

For those lucky enough to still have a job, average earnings of a union member are $1026 a week, $96 a week more than non-union members ($930), according to ABS statistics.

"We are working hard to protect as many jobs as possible and to safeguard the wages, conditions and entitlements of employees affected by the crisis." said Ms Burrow. "The lift in membership shown in today’s ABS data is welcome considering many union members are excluded from the results because they are deemed to be contractors rather than employees."

One of the social conditions the union movement is pushing strongly is paid maternity leave, with the ACTU calling on the Federal Government to include a scheme in the May Federal Budget.

Paid Maternity Leave

A report released by the Australia Institute, Long Overdue: the Macroeconomic benefits of Paid Parental Maternity Leave, shows that a paid maternity leave scheme would create 9000 jobs, and cut the net cost of the scheme by $225 million.

“The Productivity Commission estimated its scheme would mean a $450 million net cost to the budget. The additional GDP this generates is likely to create around 8,900 new jobs," said David Richardson, Senior Research Fellow at The Australia Institute.

"While we acknowledge the Government may have some tough choices to make in the light of the economic downturn, there is no question that paid parental leave remains affordable,” said Mr Richardson. "There can be little doubt that caring for a newborn and taking time off work has a significant impact on the family budget. There can also be little doubt that financial assistance to such families will be spent rapidly, spent fully, and spent in local shops rather than on foreign holiday destinations.

“The economic merits of paid parental leave can no longer be disputed. An equitable and affordable scheme not only can but should be funded in the May Budget," concluded Mr Richardson.

"What this report from the Australian Institute indicates is that there are benefits to the entire Australian community through a national paid maternity leave scheme." said ACTU President Sharan Burrow, "paid maternity leave will provide a solid foundation for economic growth by ensuring women retain a secure connection to the workforce while being able to take time out to have a baby."

Australia is one of only two OECD countries that do not provide comprehensive paid parental leave.

Sources: ACTU, Australia Institute