Reproductive Health Leave: Our repro rights at work by Dr Romy Listo | The Road to Abortion Equity
The Federal Senate has established an Inquiry into universal access to reproductive healthcare. The Inquiry was called because the government has acknowledged we have a crisis of sexual and reproductive health access.
On Wednesday 9 November 2022, we hosted an online forum to explore what the inquiry terms mean, how it applies in practice and provided a submission template which you can download here to assist people in writing their own.
Below is a longer version of the speech Dr Romy Listo gave at our webinar, which you can watch here.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the First Nations people who are the custodians of the land we’re on. I’m on the land of Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay respects to their Elders past and present, as well as all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with us today.
The Inquiry Terms of Reference h) refers to “availability of reproductive health leave for employees”, and I’m really excited to speak today on how we can embed reproductive rights into our workplaces and drawing from some work we’ve done recently at Women’s Health Matters on a reproductive health policy.
Reproductive health leave is a paid leave entitlement for employees to balance their reproductive needs, sexual health and wellbeing.
It recognizes that reproductive bodies involve changes such as menstruation and menopause, which are not illnesses, and require procedures such as abortion, which do not treat illness, and so aren’t suited to sick or personal leave.
Depending on how its implemented, reproductive leave can remedy inequity in access to leave and alleviate the gender pay gap.
It also has the potential to revolutionize our workplaces by give greater social value to reproduction generally, and shifting ideals of rational, efficient and masculine workers by creating space for flexibility, care and rest.
Reproductive health leave, in the more limited form of menstruation leave is as old as the 1920s and has been legislated or proposed in the then Soviet Union, across East and Southeast Asia, and more recently across Europe, South America, and Africa.
In Australia, access to reproductive health leave is limited, and is still being driven either as organizational policy in the private and not for profit sector, or as a bargaining claim for specific organisations and sectors.
These include the Victorian Women’s Trust, Health and Community Services Union, Modibodi, the Victorian Greens, and Women’s Health Matters, to name a few.
The policies differ quite a lot in terms of the number of days in the entitlement, ranging from 5 days to 24 per calendar year.
Their scope also differs, — Victorian Women’s Trust and Modibodi have a more limited focus on menstruation, menopause and for Modibodi, miscarriage.
The Health and Community Services Union, Women’s Health Matters and the Victorian Greens have a much wider reproductive health scope to their claim, policy and platform.
Obviously, when we’re talking about choice and abortion access, we’re advocating for this wider reproductive health scope and the explicit inclusion of abortion, both to destigmatise abortion by embedding access in our workplace rights, but also because we know lack of access to paid leave adds to the very high cost of abortion care.
A strength of the Victorian Women’s Trust and Modibodi policies is their inclusion of flexible work arrangements, which also appear in the Health and Community Services Union claim and our Women’s Health Matters policy.
The combination of leave and flexibility have an explicit aim of revolutionizing gender relations in the workplace by allowing women and people with uteruses to be more embodied at work.
There’s strength in combining a broad scope of reproductive health, with these flexible arrangements.
The inquiry is an opportunity to build on these policies and leadership.
Ultimately, we want reproductive health leave to be legislated in the National Employment Standards as a universal, protected entitlement.
However, reproductive health leave is really in its early stages, and so we’re probably some years away from that.
Its important to remember that it has taken decades for paid parental leave and domestic and family violence leave to be legislated.
With this inquiry, there’s an opportunity to recommend some of the groundwork to build the case and evidence, and in particular I’d suggest recommending that the Australian Government:
- Commission research into the impact of reproductive health on women’s and people with uteruses engagement in the labour force, and to evaluate existing reproductive health leave policies, and
- Conduct public consultation around reproductive health leave to establish community interest and support.
Like with any great idea, there are some challenges and risks to implementing reproductive leave.
In frontline services, like teaching, nursing or aged care it may be hard for workers to take the leave they are already entitled to because of real challenges around workforce capacity, and its also difficult to work flexibly or from home.
There’s an important piece of work around addressing workforce capacity in these feminized sectors.
However, its worth noting there’s some evidence to show people with endometriosis and going through menopause may drop out of inflexible workforces, and there’s an argument that reproductive health leave and greater flexibility may be able to help support more nurses, teachers and aged care workers to stay in work.
Its also important to recognize that casual employees don’t have access to paid leave entitlements, and so reproductive leave wouldn’t cover those workers who are often in more tenuous employment.
There is also a risk of reinforcing discouraging employers from hiring women and people with uteruses, and reinforcing gender essentialism.
This was an argument around paid parental leave, and speaks to the need for strong political support and supportive public discourse if reproductive health leave is to be introduced as legislation.
That’s also why we shouldn’t and can’t rely on this inquiry alone for change. We need to be guiding the conversation.
Like with domestic and family violence leave and paid parental leave, we have a role to play as advocates and workers in negotiating reproductive health policies in our workplaces, in our enterprise bargaining agreements, and within our unions.
Its up to us to create the groundswell that will ultimately be needed to bring reproductive rights to the workplace.
 According to research from Marian Baird, Elizabeth Hill and Sydney Colussi at the University of Sydney, menstruation leave can remedy, revolutionise or reinforce gender inequality. The same is true of reproductive health leave. See Baird, M., Hill, E., & Colussi, S. ‘Mapping menstrual leave legislation and policy historically and globally: labor entitlement to reinforce, remedy, or revolutionize gender equality at work?’. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 42(1), (2021): 187–228.
Dr Romy Listo (she/her) is a Senior Health Promotion Officer at Women’s Health Matters in the ACT. She has a PhD in the field of gender and development from the University of Queensland.
Romy has worked seven years in research, policy, advocacy and health promotion. Her experience includes roles in sexuality and relationships education, gender equality policy, and advocacy at all levels of government.
Romy is also an Australian Women’s Health Network board member and is co-chair of their Policy Subcommittee.