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What’s sticky with long maternity leave?
Needrup Zangpo, September 09, 2013
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It’s time for great expectations. The Bhutanese, particularly public servants, are eagerly waiting for the new government to deliver a pay rise, housing allowance, and extended maternity leave, among others. Most of them knew that these promises are not going to come soon and without a host of challenges, but they believed in them nonetheless. Rather, they persuaded themselves to believe in any political promise that raised their hope.

Among the promises that the PDP made for its first 100 days in office, extension of maternity leave “from the existing three months of paid leave to an additional nine months of relaxed service” will face some practical difficulties to deliver. We do not know what “relaxed service” means, but we do understand that the promise will virtually excuse mothers from their work for one year. Flexi-time, as “relaxed service” seems to mean, is an idea that has been tried and tested in the self-same Bhutanese system and found difficult to put into practice.

One year is a long time for a person to be away from work. However, it’s a crucial period for a baby’s development and bonding with the mother. Neonatal experts tell us that paid extended maternity leave is, after all, worth it given its long-term benefits to the child. It’s a long-term investment in a healthy and productive population, which is an asset to any country. Viewed in the context of exclusive breastfeeding and its long-term health benefits to the child, this is indeed a noble idea. Nobody disagrees with that. Disagreements arise from practical difficulties in implementing it.

When this policy of one-year maternity leave, translated into rules, is applied across the public and private sectors, there’s a serious problem. For public offices, particularly the civil service, the virtual absence of mothers for one year while being fully paid will mean not more than some adjustment in the way they work. There’s no direct financial burden on them. Viewed from the public service angle, the extended maternity leave can be seen as an indirect form of public service supported by public money. But we must not forget that public money must be spent judiciously. I will come back to this issue later.

Extended maternity leave will be difficult for private companies to implement because their concern is business. As a matter of fact, some private companies are reluctant to excuse their woman employees on a two-month maternity leave, which is one month shorter than what public servants get. The policy, if implemented in the public sector, will almost automatically apply to the private sector, albeit not wholly. The human resource policies in the private sector are heavily influenced by those in the public sector. For public limited and private limited companies, for example, rules on leave, entitlements, benefits, and travel are similar to that of public companies or offices because they operate on service rules approved by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR). Therefore, there’s little chance that private companies can escape this drastic policy shift.

What would this policy mean to private companies? Financial burden. How would they avoid this? Most probably by not taking in woman jobseekers. They may avoid the burden through various other means, though. This policy may thus disadvantage women in the private sector to which most of them have to increasingly turn to for employment. We can even imagine exclusion of women from the private sector if they are entitled to paid maternity leave for a year, or close to a year. Such a situation might arise in the public corporations as well. Although their primary mandate is public service, they have a strong (often overriding) commercial interest. For example, some of the DHI companies are fiercely profit-driven and they are out there to compete with private players. They would not, therefore, encourage something that does not make business sense.

This policy will face difficulties even within the civil service. The Ministry of Education, for example, is operating with teacher shortage that refuses to go away. And shortage of human resource is felt across the public service today. This major shift in leave entitlement will make the shortage worse. This may even throw the public sector off balance. Of course, there’s always the option of expanding the sector, but this will render the sector huge, cumbersome, and expensive. That brings us back to the issue of judicious use of public money. Experts say the public sector, particularly bureaucracy, should be best kept small for it’s expensive to run and maintain it. It’s in this knowledge that the RCSC has adopted the policy of “small, compact, and efficient” civil service. A bloated public service is a burden to the taxpayers.

Having said that, extended maternity leave (usually nine months) is adopted in many countries but not without difficulties. In Singapore, nine months of maternity leave, while well-intended, is found to have come at a cost. In a breathlessly restless and fast-evolving system, nine months is a long time and mothers are found left behind in terms of professional knowledge and skills. Some mothers are found losing their positions to juniors while they are away on maternity leave. Worse, some, particularly ones working in the private and corporate sector, lose their jobs if their companies decide to replace them.

There we are. Not all noble ideas lead to noble results. However, I am not saying or implying that the extended maternity leave is unfeasible but that careful considerations should be given to issues and difficulties surrounding its implementation. We need to consult stakeholders like the RCSC, the MoLHR, and corporate and private sectors. We need to hear, especially from the RCSC, why and how the flexi-time for working mothers it tried out did not work.

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