By Anna Patty
Women who return to work after giving birth have been forced to express milk in a car park or toilet, while others have leaked milk onto their desk after being denied the opportunity to take a break, a national inquiry has heard.
In its submission to the Human Rights Commission’s pregnancy and return to work national review, Unions NSW said many women needing to express milk at work had been unable to access appropriate lactation rooms.
”When another union member requested a break to express milk she was told that she needed to wait until another staff member could relieve her before she could leave her desk,” the submission said.
”The member was forced to wait a considerable time causing her milk to leak and increasing her risk of mastitis.”
Unions NSW said the right of employees to request extended parental leave and flexible working arrangements to meet caring needs should be strengthened under the Fair Work Act. It said employees should also be given an avenue to appeal any decisions made by management and employers to reject such a request.
”These appeal rights should provide employees with access to the Fair Work Commission for conciliation and arbitration,” the submission says.
Jenny Singleton, from the NSW Public Service Association, said she had received reports of women being denied the opportunity to express milk in the workplace. She said one woman had been forced to express milk in a toilet which had a faulty lock. An employee walked in on her and then told colleagues that it was ”gross when women express milk”.
”Management didn’t do anything about it and she was too afraid to take it further because she didn’t want to risk losing her flexible working conditions,” she said.
A survey of Public Service Association members found that 77 per cent of 713 respondents said they had missed out on an opportunity for promotion while pregnant, and 71 per cent said they had missed out of training or development opportunities.
It also found that 79 per cent of women who responded said they had been subjected to inappropriate comments by supervisors while pregnant. Ms Singleton said many women had been denied the right to seek flexible working conditions after giving birth and returning to work.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Industry Group said a common challenge for employers in blue-collar industries was dealing with requests for flexible work that conflicted with rosters. The challenge did not arise to the same extent in white-collar jobs.
“The main reasons for this are that flexible working hours are more easily accommodated and options such as job-share or working from home are more accessible to both the employer and employee,’’ the submission said.
“Nonetheless, some smaller employers…find it challenging to accommodate requests for part-time work in circumstances where the employee, prior to parental leave, was employed on a full-time basis.
“Many of these employers report that, despite their best efforts, the requests could not be accommodated, or were very difficult to accommodate, because of the direct and indirect costs for the employers in recruiting a new employee….’’
The submission said inflexible provisions in workplace awards ‘‘also create barriers to the accommodation of requests for flexible working arrangements made by employees returning to work from a period of parental leave’’.
A draft submission by the Australian Council of Trade Unions said many women resigned from their job to have a baby because of limited access to unpaid leave and flexible return to work options.
Many also experienced a loss of seniority and access to training and career paths and unreasonable refusal by employers to accommodate them.