Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Parental Leave Question from Sweden to Singapore

Vivian got it right this time!

A few days ago, MCYS Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan mused that representing maternity leave as parental leave would be a step in the right direction. I don't think it would affect baby growth that much, but it would affect attitude towards employees who are new mothers. Ask around quietly and the cautious reply from supervisors at the office is that mothers with new babies invite potential productivity problems but it is politically incorrect to voice such views openly. However, if mothers or fathers of new born are allowed to take parental leave, then this sexist stereotype of new mums as productivity problems would be greatly diminished.

The current provisions for new mothers since October 2008 are 16 weeks instead of the previous 12 weeks maternity leave. The first eight weeks would be paid by the employer and the next eight weeks would be paid for by the government, capped at $20,000 or $40,000 including CPF depending on certain criteria. The second set of eight weeks also need not be taken right away, it can be spread out throughout the year after the birth of the baby, factoring in employers' concerns that a 16-week block absence might be a serious opportunity cost for the company. While it cannot stop employers from getting rid of new mums as they are a perceived temporary productivity risk, the company can be taken to task if the pregnant staff is dismissed in the last six months or retrenched within the last three months of her pregnancy.

So we are led to ask these questions. If parental leave is implemented where dads and mums can take leave, will dads also be protected from dismissal if they take leave after the new baby comes along? How would the parental leave be split between the parents?

The good idea about parental leave is that both married men and women are from then on perceived productivity risk where the employer is concerned. The burden of the stereotype on down-tools is no longer restricted to new mums. New dads are equally at risk on down-time. The employer has less excuse to be sexist with the evolution of the maternal leave to parental leave in Singapore. Furthermore, new dads can also have the opportunity to be with their new kids on paper, thus debunking the idea that only mums want to take care of their babies. Although some dads might use the leave to play 18-holes everyday instead in practice.

Sweden's approach towards parental leave is a shockingly liberal one with a huge burden on taxpayers but it is a good map for charting parental leave policies nonetheless. For instance, parents can have up to 480 days of parental leave which is paid by the state. The remuneration is not full but up to 80% of the salary depending on the length of the parental leave taken and the income bands of the parent. One parent, either mum or dad, however cannot take more than 420 days and the expectation is that parental leave is to be shared equally in their society where equality of the sexes is ingrained in law and culture.

Although Sweden's model might not fit into the Singapore context at this moment, it does give valuable insights on how parental leave should or should not be done. Parental leave is after all a good populist vote-winning policy when the election comes.

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