A snag in women-friendly proposals

TOP treasury policymakers deserve an "A" for unveiling several women-friendly proposals in Budget 2018. For a few major initiatives, little thought appears to have been given to implementation issues. Translating these measures from paper to performance could be, at best, delayed or at worst, derailed – an outcome that could rate a "D" or even an "F".

Helpful propositions for women employees include extending maternity leave in the private sector from the current 60 days to 90 days (matching the norm in the civil service), directing all local authorities – starting with those in Kuala Lumpur – to ensure childcare facilities are provided in all new office buildings and requiring government-linked companies as well as statutory bodies to ensure women account for 30% of their board of directors.

Implementing the proposed 90-day maternity leave could be the most challenging. Failure to consult the biggest stakeholder – private sector employers – could see this strategy circumvented by companies hiring far fewer women.

Executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Shamsudin Bardan told Singapore's TODAY newspaper: "We are not prepared for this, it was announced without any consultation with us" and warned this measure, if mandatory, could impact the hiring of women.

Shamsudin also raised an interesting issue. Extending maternity leave to 90 days could require new legislation to be enacted or existing laws amended. Will lawmakers have time to enact or amend the requisite legislation during this session of Parliament? The legislators' schedule is congested and the House of Representatives must be dissolved and a general election held before August next year.

MEF represents 5,300 companies as well as 22 trade bodies and associations; its members collectively employ 2.5 million workers. Some 250,000 women take maternity leave annually and this costs companies RM40.5 billion in maternity leave pay and other expenses, MEF estimates.

If adopted, the proposed 90-day maternity leave will compel employers to fork out an additional RM20 billion – RM10 billion for post-paid maternity leave and RM10 billion for hiring temporary workers – and this will affect corporate profitability, Shamsudin said.

That women's participation in the workforce in this country needs to be increased cannot be denied. Women account for only 49% of the Malaysian workforce, the lowest participation rate among major Asean countries, data from the World Bank shows.
Studies by the International Monetary Fund suggest raising the participation rate of female employees to match that of their male counterparts could potentially boost a country's economic growth – by 9% in Japan and 34% in Egypt.

One drawback of extended maternity leave is that it reinforces the belief that caring for children is the sole responsibility of mothers. Equally essential is paternity leave. If implemented, this concept could offers three benefits.

First, fathers will be given the opportunity to care for their children. Second, paternity leave will narrow the gap between the cost of hiring men and women. Third, making men aware that paternity leave could mean missed career opportunities, they could become more supportive of flexible employment policies.

Equally essential, the government must bear the cost – either partially or wholly – of paid parental leave. Without the government's financial assistance, it will be all too easy for private employers to claim longer parental leave is impossible because it will damage their profitability and this, in turn, will hurt tax revenue.
Among Scandinavian countries, Sweden offers the longest partially-paid maternity leave while Finland gives maternity leave to all mothers – regardless of whether they are students, unemployed or self-employed.

In Sweden, mothers get 18 weeks paid leave while fathers get 90 days – about 12 weeks – paternity leave. Additionally, parents are also entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay to be shared between both parents.

Not surprisingly, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are rated among the top 10 happiest countries in this year's World Happiness Report released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations.

Another Budget 2018 proposal requires local authorities, starting with Kuala Lumpur, to ensure all new office buildings include childcare facilities. Constructing new buildings will take time – at least two years or more. Rental for childcare centres could also be a major issue. Why not offer a tax incentive to spur the setting up of childcare centres? This could help reduce Kuala Lumpur's huge overhang of unoccupied office space – exceeding a high of 1.62 million sq m, government statistics show.

Yet another Budget 2018 proposal requires all government-linked and statutory companies to ensure women account for 30% of their directors. Choosing directors because of their gender rather than their capabilities demeans the appointee and the company. Furthermore, what can a handful of female directors achieve?

A better option is promoting more women to the C-suite – chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief financial officers and the like. As top executives, women will have the power to effect meaningful change.

If Budget 2018 strategies remain concepts without successful execution, it will become a non-event.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com