Those outside the government feel there will be implication on other sectors

Policy: With the implementation of the extended six-month maternity leave, the government has fulfilled one of its major election promises. But skeptics are of the view that the policy will have implications on the other sectors and public service delivery.

Although the rule does not apply to the private and corporate sectors, they feel it indirectly asks them to follow suit. The female employment rate is low and the implementation of the policy in the private and corporate sectors could affect employability of female.

If the scheme is not extended to other sectors, skeptics say that it would “create a division” in the society. The policy provides only to a small segment of the society all the advantages, while leaving out the bulk of the population.

Women civil servants constitute about 2.5 percent of the country’s female population. The policy is aimed at promoting family values and children’s welfare in line with the country’s GNH policy.

One of the two vice-presidents of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dechen Wangmo, said it would entail additional financial burden on the private sector.

If an employee goes on leave for six months, she said the company would have to find her replacement. “There will be two employees for one job when the mother returns from her maternity leave.”

Corporation Chief Executive Officers said they had not discussed anything on the issue as yet and that they were not able to comment.

The Druk Holding and Investments is expected to discuss the issue next week, after which it will make its views public.

However, a corporate manager said corporations might have to wait for a signal from the government. Sharing his personal view, he said the rule will lead to recruitment of additional people and translate into extra financial burden.

A general manager of a corporation said profit-oriented corporations would think twice when employing young women. “It might sound biased, but that will be the reality,” he said. “Corporations have targets to meet and cannot pay for employees who are not contributing.” His company gives three months leave and flexi breast feeding time.

Women employees agree with the government that the scheme will benefit both mothers and babies.

A 27-year-old corporate employee in Thimphu joined office after completing her three-month maternity leave a few days back. “It’s emotionally and physically difficult for a mother to leave a three month baby at home,” she said.

Tshomo, a Thimphu municipal worker from Tashigang works about eight hours a day on a salary of Nu 7,000 per month without any allowances. Civil servants are entitled to a number of allowances such as house rent allowance, difficulty allowance and high altitude allowance.

The government initiated the policy keeping in mind the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and the underlying health impact to the child and the mother. The National Nutritional Survey (2015) shows that the exclusive breastfeeding rate in Bhutan has been found to be only 51.4 percent.

Works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden said the government would be happy to see other sectors also extend maternity leave period even though they may not be able to afford six months. “The private sector can on their own give longer maternity leave than what they have been giving,” she said.

The opposition party supports the scheme in principle, but feels that there should have been more consultations and studies to see whether the state can afford it today.

Opposition leader (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said, “There should have been more consultations on whether such a scheme would lead to creating a super class for generations to come and whether such a scheme would lead to an unintended discrimination against women, particularly in terms of access to employment opportunities.”

“Bhutan has a highly inflated and lopsided civil service, where the productivity in some sectors are questionable and where we do not have enough professionals to meet the demands for their services in some other sectors,” the opposition leader said.

He believes that it would have been more practical if there was a flexi-time approach whereby, nursing mothers can avail time off for part of the day (according to her own convenience) beyond the current three-month maternity period. This perhaps, he said, would be applicable to other sectors as well without high costs to the exchequer.

“We cannot simply have the kind of social engineering that provides a small segment of the society all the advantages that such a scheme provides while leaving out the bulk of the population,” he said.

The latest RCSC annual report shows there are 9,210 female civil servants, of which 8,928 are between the ages of 19 and 50. During the last eight years, almost equal number of females and males entered the civil service.

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) General Secretary Tenzin Lekphel described the maternity leave scheme as a “direct against policy” of business development and private sector growth. He said although the government has promised 100 percent employment the policy will give rise to unemployment.

“Giving a six-month paid leave would create a division in the society. We all know that private sector employers cannot afford to give this luxurious leave to women,” he said. “So it is creating an unjust society – a division of women and children in our small society.”

Tenzin Lekphel also said that it is mildly asking the private sector to also provide the six-month leave. “If this be the case, our economy will be in shambles,” he said.

With the implementation of the policy, he said almost one-third of the country’s population will be in the house feeding babies and not working. This, he said, will slow down the economic growth. “As it is, we already have lot of holidays.”

MB Subba