Can We End Workplace Discrimination Against Pregnant Women?

 

First published on publichouse.sg in January 2013

I’m typing this piece sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two, while I cradle my newborn baby in the other. It’s just part and parcel of juggling kids with everything else one needs to do. This is my fourth child and over the years, with my other three children, I have taken on a mix of full time jobs and freelance work.

 

Like I’m sure many parents out there were, I was pleased to hear the Government announce its new goodies for its Marriage and Parenthood Package on 21 Jan. Giving young families priority housing was the biggest, one of the most needed—and if I may say, overdue—changes, so it was good to see it finally formalized.

 

But then I also recalled a story in AsiaOne, published just a week before, on 14 Jan, that reported Acting Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin, saying 70 per cent of women who turned to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices because they felt they had been unfairly dismissed from their jobs, were pregnant at the time of their dismissal, and believed that they had been discriminated against by their employer because of that.

 

[http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Diva/Story/A1Story20130114-395502.html]

 

And I wondered how these enhancements to the Marriage and Parenthood Package, these persistent pushes for more babies, square with people’s attitude towards family and children, including how pregnant women are perceived in the workplace.

 

Because no matter how enticing the Package is, if people are still afraid of the negative consequences of having children, then we are still going to struggle with our birthrate.

 

Not to criticise the improvements to the Package for failing to do something they are not setting out to do, but as a working mother all these years, I’ve been on both sides of the maternity leave coin.

 

I’ve been the person-in-charge at work, faced with a team member who needed to go away on maternity leave.

 

And I’ve been the one who herself needed maternity leave.

A large part of the government’s generosity with maternity leave ends up evaporating, not helping employers where it hurts them the most and, as with so many forms of government financial support, is not as generous as it appears to be.

 

And the government’s portion is paid retroactively—which means employers have to pay for maternity leave upfront and then file a claim to get it paid back to them. If companies need to hire temporary staff to replace the person on maternity leave, a big chunk of that will come out of their own pocket. Companies with lean teams and tight cash flow find this a real strain.

 

The solution can be straightforward, but requires a fundamental shift away from this fear of creating dependency that so many of our government’s help policies are grounded in. The work ethic behind this—we’ll help you a little bit but not so much that you get comfortable—undermines the Government’s good intentions, as it always hurts those who need help the most; and extends help to those who are already most likely to be able to help themselves.

 

Just pay employers for the full 16 weeks of maternity leave for all mothers, regardless of how many children they have. (Incidentally, apply this to single mothers too.) Give this to employers once they declare that they have a member of staff going on maternity leave—it will help so much to ease the employer’s load and make hiring extra help that much smoother.

 

Most employers don’t want to be bad guys. But they don’t get cut much slack either. At the end of the day, they have their own bosses and stakeholders to account to, who for the most part just want to see better performance and more profit. No one is going to say, ‘Oh, I understand you had to spend more money and were less productive in the last few months because Ms So-and-So was on maternity leave.’ A more typical attitude is, ‘This is your problem, you know your budget, fix it.’

 

This is a problem that the government needs to look into more. And, your budget for the near future allows you to look into solutions to this problem. So , please, think about fixing this too.

 

I know what it’s like to worry about how to deliver the same level and quality of work with one person down; to delegate that person’s work amongst the rest of the team and still keep everyone reasonably happy; and to ask senior management for money to hire extra help, which I knew I probably wouldn’t get, or wouldn’t get enough of. And about how I would have to take on extra work too, on top of everything else I was handling.

 

I know what it’s like to resent the woman who is going on maternity leave.

 

I also know what it’s like to go on maternity leave—to hope and pray that your boss and colleagues will understand; to worry about being lucid enough to stay in touch with work while you are so sleep deprived your brain feels like cotton wool; to angst about whether you will still have your place in the team at the end of it all—because you value yourself as a professional and need your job to support the family.

 

So what can we do?

 

It has been announced that pregnant staff will be accorded even more protection in the workplace—from 1 May this year, they will be entitled to full maternity leave, paid for by their employer, if they are ‘dismissed without sufficient cause or retrenched at any stage of their pregnancy.’

 

While this is fantastic and right, coming down harder on employers might actually add to the discrimination.

 

To balance things out, I think employers could use a little help too—to make it easier for them to cope when a woman goes on maternity leave.

 

Right now the bulk of the burden of paying for maternity leave falls on employers.

 

They have to foot the bill for the first eight weeks of maternity leave for a woman’s first and second child. The government will pay for the next eight weeks. For a woman’s third and fourth child, the government will pay for the full 16 weeks. Sounds like a good deal—at first.

 

But, as most women who decide to have children stop at one or two—and all of those women will take the first eight weeks of leave, while only some will take the second eight weeks—it’s the employers who end up bearing the practically guaranteed cost of maternity leave—with the government picking up the costs that are less likely to be incurred.