Thursday 30 August 2012

National Day Rally 2012: Reactions to paternity leave

NTUC cheers openness to paternity leave
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

THE National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) yesterday welcomed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's willingness to legislate paternity leave - one of the suggestions it made last month.

Paternity leave is now "almost a norm" in the unionised sector, said NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say at the last of the labour movement's National Day ceremonies this month.

"We're very happy that this may become a national norm."

During Sunday's National Day Rally, Mr Lee said paternity leave was one measure the Government was considering to boost birth rates.

The NTUC had earlier called for mandatory paternity leave of two days, along with other family-friendly measures.

But though paternity leave is a "big step", it should not be the only step, said Mr Lim.

"If the Government gives X days of paternity leave, it does not mean that the father only spends the X days to take care of the babies and the other days are the duty of the wife," he said.

Nor should fathers' involvement in parenting end once the babies grow older, he added.

Many of the 1,500 unionised companies already offer two days' paternity leave, NTUC assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong told reporters.

But two days is "certainly not enough", she said, which is why the NTUC has also suggested a week of paid infant care leave, to be taken by either parent.

While welcoming the prospect of paternity leave, Ms Cham tempered this with caution: "We hope that, should there be any paternity leave, it should be in addition to the 16 weeks' maternity leave that the woman is already enjoying."

What the NTUC does not want is for paternity leave to be included in those 16 weeks.

The Government may have taken one of the NTUC's suggestions on board, but it has been less open to another.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister said keeping maternity leave at 16 weeks "was about all right". The NTUC had proposed extending this to six months.

Ms Cham said that fellow female union leaders were "quite disappointed" by the Prime Minister's reaction, but noted that he had not specifically said "no".

The labour movement will continue to push the idea, not least through its ties with unionised companies, she said.

"I think we will certainly talk to the more enlightened companies to see if they can grant this."

SNEF raises concerns over moves to enhance paternity leave
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 27 Aug 2012

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his National Day Rally on Sunday that paternity leave could be enhanced, something that interest groups have been lobbying for and employers have been resisting.

On Monday, the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) raised concerns over new legislation that may be passed on paternity leave, even as employees call for better work-life balance.

Observers said the government's move to finally act on paternity leave signals how serious it is in solving the problem of Singapore's low fertility rate. It is also a recognition of the dual responsibility of men and women in raising children, with more women in the workforce.

It is not clear yet what form the paternity leave will take. Currently, fathers have two days of paternity leave that can be taken when his child is born. Father also get six days childcare leave for children aged seven and below.

Various groups have suggested that the number of days for this could be raised, or even allow the last one or two months of the four-month maternity leave to be gender neutral, meaning that fathers too are eligible for the leave.

The SNEF said this may require new legislation. However, it added that legislation brings about a certain amount of rigidity, especially for companies which are already generous in their family care leave.

Stephen Lee, president of the SNEF, said: "Businesses understand the whole fertility issue, that we're not replacing ourselves. But when it comes to legislation, we are cautious. There are already some companies that tell us they give very generous annual leave, upwards of thirty-plus days, and these companies have concerns that if you legislate something over and on top (of what is already there), that means additional time would have to be given off."

Even allowing fathers to share part of the maternity leave may bring problems.

Stephen Lee added: "I don't want to jump the gun but if you talk about 16 weeks of maternity leave and part of it may be taken by the father - if you take half, that's quite disruptive. Right now, many companies are facing a labour shortage. The mother and the father don't work in the same company, then there has to be some sort of checking mechanism, so it's not double-counted.

"And when you are under a shortage of labour, especially when they possess a certain type of skill which is difficult to train, then suddenly you say 'Okay, the guy is going to be away for a month or two, so it's going to be disruptive.' Companies need time to adjust to these things and then they will have to carry more headcount to cover."

There is also a view that companies need to change their philosophy on human resource.

Associate Professor Paulin Tay-Straughan, a sociologist with the National University of Singapore, said: "Right now, our investment in human resource is too short-term. We are looking at annual performance appraisals year after year - 12 months is a very short time. So if you have 12 months and you know that you are measured on what you have done in the 12 months, taking a couple of months off could be quite disastrous at least in the perception of the younger, particularly vulnerable professionals.

"It really has to be a long-term investment. We start work in our 20s and we're not going to retire till we're 65. We're really going to have a long time in the organisation. We need to have an organisational shift towards work and start nurturing loyal, committed employees. Your employees will have a good 40 years with you, start to translate this investment into a more middle-term, at least, a longer time perspective. Invest in training, invest in allowing the employee to grow holistically because it will be a win-win situation for everyone."

Labour chief Lim Swee Say said more can be done to enhance work-life balance, not just for families, but also singles so they can start thinking about starting families.

He said: "I'll say that in terms of work-life balance, if it's too lopsided towards work, then it's of course not good for the family. If it's too lopsided towards the family, then it will affect the work and the economy. I think the challenge is how do we strike a balance. I would say that, on the whole, if we look at Singapore, today the balancing point appears to be too pro-work and not pro-family enough.

"I think as we move ahead, what we want to do is not to make sudden change, but to make a gradual change so that we can keep finding a more optimal balancing point. But the issue really is that for the work-life balance, I think the focus will be in terms of work versus employment and family.

"But our concern is that it has to go beyond that. I think the community must play a part as well, and the family must play a part as well, so that we can provide a total environment and not look for just one or two areas and hope that they will create change."

Proponents of pro-family policies said it is just a matter of changing mindsets.

Lim Soon Hock, chairman of the Centre for Fathering and National Family Council, said: "I don't think you can achieve success or buy-in overnight. A good example is our National Service. In the early years, employers and businesses were unhappy about male employees having to be in camp for two weeks to a month doing reservist training. Today, it is institutionalised. So it's about planning.

"I think if you look at newborns, (when the) good news of couples having babies come in, companies have nine months to plan for it and I think companies should adjust and like I said, take it as public duty to support all the changes and initiatives that are being debated and discussed, that will soon be implemented to help the nation reverse the total fertility rate."

Apart from enhanced paternity leave which will get the green light, the other recommendations - to do with housing policies or medical insurance for babies - are still just recommendations at this point. Consultations are ongoing and they will all go into a White Paper on population policies to be released by the end of this year or sometime early next year.

The good news is that this year, being the auspicious Dragon year, has resulted in a slight bump in the number of live births. There were more than 23,550 babies born between January till July this year. It is about a five per cent jump compared to the same period last year.

Flexi-work: 'Tough to get SMEs on board'
Many firms lack necessary mindset or set-up, says SME group president
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

GETTING small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) to introduce flexible work arrangements is an uphill battle, despite government efforts at encouraging companies to introduce family friendly work practices.

Working from home, in particular, is out of the question because being in the office is the only way these bosses know how to get work done, said Mr Chan Chong Beng, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.

While many are familiar with e-mail and other online communication tools, they do not see them as aids that stay-at-home workers can use to report on work progress.

Also, most SMEs do not have standard operating procedures (SOP) for working from home, said Mr Chan yesterday, on what is possibly the biggest obstacle standing in the way of making work-life balance a way of life in Singapore.

On Sunday, during the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had called on employers to ensure work-life balance to help workers better balance the responsibilities of work and parenthood. SMEs play a crucial role in this effort as they employ about 70 per cent of Singapore's 3.2 million workforce.

While changing mindsets will take time, employer groups and unionists interviewed yesterday believe subsidies to defray the cost of setting up flexible work arrangements and courses to educate bosses on their benefits can go some way in coaxing them to heed the PM's call.

Other forces of change would be to expand the Government's existing pro-family initiatives like the Work Life Unit.

It was set up in 2000 by the then Ministry of Community Development and Sports to run training programmes and consultancy services for businesses to create pro-family work environments.

Another is a $3 million fund started in 2007 by the Manpower Ministry and Workforce Development Agency to help employers cover the cost of hiring workers on part-time or flexible work arrangements. In 2009, it received additional funding of $3 million.

While new government initiatives to help SMEs change are always welcomed, labour leader Cham Hui Fong believes a pivotal factor is the action taken at the top. "Change must start with the CEO, then senior and middle management must practise it. And then workers will feel confident enough to place family first when they need to," said Ms Cham, a mother of two, who is assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress.

She noted: "Aspiration to excel is high in most young people. Office hours may end at 7pm but when everyone is staying late, do you think you will go home?"

The importance of face-time in many companies permeates into other areas like compensation, said Singapore National Employers Federation executive director Koh Juan Kiat.

"Employees are unlikely to request flexibility because there is a perception that this will impact on their rewards," he said.

But as more workers ask for flexible work arrangements, SMEs will be forced to change, said human resource experts.

Said management consultant Oliver Foo, 48, father of two young children: "Maybe some employers are not aware of what technology can do. With collaborative technology, people can log on and have meetings even from home."

Paternity leave: Cheers and concern
By Phua Mei Pin and Jennani Durai, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

PARENTS, would-be parents and employers have welcomed the idea of making paternity leave compulsory - at least in principle.

They support the idea of giving new fathers time off, saying this will not only help mothers, but also send society a strong signal that fathers are responsible for taking care of the family too.

But they worry about what form this leave will take - such as whether mums will have to share their maternity leave - and how it might affect the workplace.

"The Government is no longer just throwing money at the problem. Giving fathers leave... is responding to what people actually need to have families," said Mr Yeo Puay Khoon, 35, an architect whose wife is expecting their first child.

His was a typical response from parents to some of the pro-family measures that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said would be considered.

While the list included other likely measures, such as promoting work-life balance and housing priority for couples with children, paternity leave in particular struck a chord with many.

Mothers interviewed were certainly all for the idea. Ms Chan Hui Yuh, 35, believed it would level the playing field between men and women workers.

"It takes away the stigma of maternity leave for women," said the director in a construction firm who delivered her second child last week.

Groups like the National Family Council and fathers' group Dads Amazing (right) also cheered the prospect. Dads Amazing chairman Husain Khan Ali said: "Having the dad closely involved will go a long way towards helping the child develop in the early years."

But questions remain over how it will work in practice.

Experts, parents and family groups are asking for durations ranging from one week to two months and divided on whether it should be taken from the existing maternity leave of four months.

PM Lee had raised the possibilities in his speech, saying: "Either you give some to the husband or you make some of the maternity leave convertible."

But new mother Cheryl Lim, 29, is against the latter for fear of losing bonding time with her two-month-old infant.

But if the four months had to be shared, she said, "it might be workable only if the Government leaves it up to the husband and wife to work out together how to share the leave".

Another first-time mother, Mrs Phyllis Chng-Yee, 32, wondered whether self-employed fathers would miss out. "If the paternity leave can be extended to contract workers in some way, if they can claim the days' wages from an agency, that would be very helpful," she said.

Employers, meanwhile, are worried about the manpower shortages that compulsory paternity leave could create in smaller companies and in male-dominated industries.

The managing director of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, Ms Andrea Ross, said: "The changing of mindsets will still be the greatest challenge."

The Singapore National Employers Federation reiterated its stand that paternal leave should not be mandated and noted that many firms already gave fathers time off for their newborns.

Its executive director Koh Juan Kiat said: "Paternity leave for a short duration... is an industry practice. We would prefer that companies be incentivised to offer it to complement their other leave schemes."

Still, employers were overall supportive of the measures, observing that paternity leave can bring benefits to the company. Some suggested allowing new dads to take a few days of leave at a time - instead of a long period - to help companies adjust.

Ms Pauline Sim, human resources senior manager for offshore drilling firm Jasper Offshore, said paternity leave would ultimately make employees happier and more productive - and help bosses retain talent.

She added that in terms of hiring practices, "it will definitely make employers less likely to discriminate against women".

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