May 2nd, 2014

More extensive, universal parental leave needed

MS JESSICA Jaganathan’s letter is timely (“Offer unpaid extension of maternity leave”).

A society that recognises the value of family life should structure employment so as to enable everyone, regardless of gender, to fully enjoy active parenthood alongside participation in the workforce. This aspiration underpins existing statutory entitlements to maternity and paternity leave, but how far has it been realised?

Women in Singapore have up to 16 weeks of statutory maternity leave, and men have only one week of paternity leave (though a couple can transfer one week of the mother’s entitlement to the father). But this does not apply to all. For instance, unmarried mothers or mothers of non-Singaporean children have only 12 weeks’ leave, though their care responsibilities are just as significant.

Ms Jaganathan noted that the 16-week period, of which only 12 are after birth, sits uneasily with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that infants be breastfed exclusively for six months.

Indeed, the International Labour Organisation recommends that national laws provide for at least 18 weeks of maternity leave – a standard met by 20 per cent of countries.

Some even exceed this. Women in Ireland, for instance, enjoy six months of maternity leave and a further 16 weeks of unpaid leave. In Britain, parents divide a total of 52 weeks of leave between themselves – an arrangement that better suits individual families’ needs than pushing all into a single mould of gendered caregiving.

Of course, these rights are effective only if they are respected.

Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke of the need for cultural transformation – for society to change how it views workers – to improve productivity (“S’pore firms ‘need mindset change’ “; March 3).

This applies to parental leave too. It imposes short-term costs on employers but, ultimately, organisations benefit from the higher morale and productivity of more fulfilled workers with happier family lives.

Moreover, businesses do not operate in a vacuum; they benefit from societal support and should also bear social responsibilities. We hear repeatedly that the economy requires more births – so why shouldn’t those who profit most from economic growth help support the conditions that enable it?

If Singapore truly wishes to support families, it should consider offering more extensive, and universal, parental leave. The Government should also consider stronger measures to prevent employers from discriminating against women, or any parent, because they are entitled to such leave.

By Jolene Tan (Ms), Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research)

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 22 April 2014.




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