Unraveling the knotty issue of maternity leave

BCSR: There is a strong speculation that the Cabinet will endorse the proposed six-month paid maternity leave and flexi-time for civil servants as it was the government’s pledge. The Royal Civil Service Commission studied the possibility and recommended the same.

While the 9,000 or so women in the civil service will welcome an endorsement of six months of paid maternity leave, there are questions being asked. First on the list is what about the other women- in the public corporations and the private sector? Will service delivery be hampered and can the government afford it?

There are skeptics who question if the civil service commission would achieve its objective of making the civil service efficient.

The option of flexi-timing is not new. It was tried in the past, but did not work out well. While reforming the civil service in 2006, flexi-time was reflected as a rule in the Bhutan civil service rules (BCSR) 2006. A year after implementing it, the commission received feedback from agencies and dzongkhags that it was difficult to implement.  Based on the negative feedback, the rule was taken out in the 2010 BCSR.

The rationale 

Following a proposal from the government in January this year and a study by the commission, RCSC recommended that mothers be given six months paid maternity leave. Another recommendation was that one of the parents could stay at home for another six months on half pay. The third option is that the parent take up flexi-time of doing 50 percent work and receive full salary, which will be in effect until the child turns one year.

The health ministry backed the proposal stating that going by the exclusive breastfeeding figures, there is a desperate need to improve the six months exclusive breastfeeding in Bhutan. This urgency to improve the breastfeeding rate in the country was compounded by the fact that 37 percent of the children below five years are stunted, 11.1 percent underweight and 4.6 percent wasted.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk had earlier said that increasing the maternity benefits to six months is valid from the health aspect. It would mean, he said,  babies growing up to be healthy individuals not needing health investments, besides babies growing up to be productive adults.

Implications?

If the move has come at a time when the RCSC is looking at ways to make the civil service compact and efficient, there are skeptics who feel the rule could have implications.

The health ministry’s   proposal had already pointed out cost implications besides an impact on human resource. The proposal to expand the maternal benefits is also expected to lead to gender preference in the job markets. “A possibility exists that employers would give preference to male employee over female employee because of the extended maternity leave,” states the proposal. “Strong laws and government support would be needed in order to prevent this.”

Productivity and professionalism of female employees at the work place could be jeopardized with the extended maternity leave. The proposal highlights that a good monitoring system should be in place to ensure female workers on maternity leave meet their targeted production of work and stay motivated.

Health ministry officials view the cost implication as “short and medium term” that would be outweighed by long-term benefits such as the health of the exclusively breastfed babies not requiring significant investments in health.

However, as the six months maternity leave and flexi timing is only for women in the civil service, questions arise on whether the cost recovery from babies of civil servants alone would serve the purpose.

“What would happen to students if two teachers of the school are on six-month long maternity leave,” a private school teacher said. “Will the civil service increase the teacher intake to solve this problem?”

Records with RCSC show that, as of December 2014, there are 8,992 female civil servants, which is 34.16 percent of the total 25,000 civil servants. Education and training services have the highest number of female civil servants at 12.15 percent, which includes teachers, management and educational support services.  It’s followed by those in general administration and support services group at 5.69 percent, and medical and health services group with 4.54 percent.

The sector with the lowest number of female civil servants falls under the arts, culture and literary group, which includes culture officers and translation services, among others, at 0.02 percent.

As per the labour force survey 2014, a majority of the women are employed in the agriculture sector at 101,425 followed by 36,238 in the private sector while the armed force employs 562 female and 236 in the non-government organisations.

The longer maternity leave for civil servants will not solve the stunted children problem in the country. “How many of them belong to civil servant mothers,” said a mother.

Reservations

As expected, working mothers in civil service are happy. However, women whose job profiles involve physical presence are skeptical on how it would benefit them. Teachers, health workers, receptionists and dispatchers expressed reservations.

A working mother with one of the ministries, Dechen Dolma is optimistic that the proposal would be approved, as it’s also a government pledge. “I won’t mind sacrificing my salary for the next six months after the maternity leave ends,” she said, explaining how difficult it is as a working mother to juggle between work and home. “It does make a lot of difference when you are able to exclusively breastfeed your baby.”

However, a receptionist with one of the ministries, Phub Gyem, 35, said that her job demands physical presence. “I wonder how the flexi timing would be applicable for people like us,” she said.

Thimphu referral hospital’s medical superintendent Dr Gosar Pemba said that the issue was discussed when the health ministry came up with the proposal. “While there will be cost implications on the government, not all female employees go on maternity leave together so there shouldn’t be much impact,” he said.

Dr Gosar Pemba said that last year about 50 women were on maternity leave in the health sector that has the highest female employees.

Gasa’s council member Sangay Khandu said while it’s good news for all women in the civil service, the impact it would have on women working in other sectors need to be seen.

“If approved, women in the non-government organisations would expect similar benefits,” he said. “Will the government eventually apply the same policy on other sectors as well?”

Another drawback to such a policy, Sangay Khandu said would widen the gap between women working in civil service and other sectors. “While such gender decision would help all women working in the civil service, it distinguishes working women in two classes.”

He said that female employees of the civil service already have an edge over those working in the other sectors. For instance, job security, perks and incentives are better for women civil servants while it’s otherwise for women working in the private sector.

“Unless there is a clear indication from the government, the policy will not serve its intended purpose,” he said.

While the extended maternity leave and flexi timing for the female civil servants could result in some private and corporate organisations adopting similar practices, he said there are also chances that this could have an impact on female employment in the private sector.

Some of the parliamentarians also lauded the proposal but said it would no doubt leave out a segment of the women.

Dogar-Shaba parliament member Kezang Wangmo who is also a member of the Parliament’s women, children and youth committee said that in reality such a policy should benefit all infants and mothers irrespective of where their mothers work or whether or not they are employed.

“However, we have to take a step and the focus right now is to begin with the civil service,” she said.

Kezang Wangmo said when the committee carried out a study on the maternity leave extension they also looked at the possibility of including government owned corporations and the private sector.

The committee met representatives of the financial institutions, private sector and the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry besides government agencies.

“We learnt that it was difficult for the private sector as a profit making organization unless the government provides some incentives,” she said.

Kezang Wangmo said that besides working mothers, it was equally important that farmers exclusively breastfed their infants, something that the government should encourage through incentives.

Meanwhile, the proposal if approved would require the amendment of the BCSR and the labour rules that grants three months maternity leave for civil servants and a minimum of two months for other agencies.

Kinga Dema

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    If extensive motherly care is a must for every new born baby for the first year; every child will exclusively require proper parental care and guide till he reaches the age of 5 or 6 years. Parents need to spend long time with their young kids and that’s required for the child’s physical and more importantly mental developments. So for any married couple planning for small family with 2 to 3 kids, we are probably looking at a good 10 years of extensive parental care in total. So these small things become a key part in future planning in every individual’s life and that too from a young age in today’s societies.

    Call it a changing society or a highly challenging choice of competitive and professional career opportunities or even misconceptions about sensitive topics like gender equality as well as home/work life balance; many of today’s parents tends to think that spending time with young children is more of waste than useful investment. Parents probably take things a bit easy once their kids are at a good schooling environment, but that always can’t be expected. Moreover, even school teachers are facing the same challenges with their children. So to be very frank, the work life and the professional capabilities of the parents don’t make much difference to a little child in its growing up needs.

    The proposal of a fully paid maternity leave for 6 months and then another 6 months for one of the parent at half pay with flexible work conditions, is always good for a beginning. It also addresses more to a young family’s economic needs, but the child’s need for parental care doesn’t end there. The distance from home to office has to come down and these things need to be part of future Thromde planning. Similarly the physical distances of different key government offices has to be kept at minimum. A city’s transport planning has to consider optimised travel time at the very beginning before development of the city goes out of control. Large and financially sound public or private employers may consider well integrated office cum residential constructions with an eye on child care requirements for the employees. The modern time work environment is always changing. We have incorporated ICT facilities in our offices, but it shouldn’t be just about only some technological upgrades. There is a strong need to keep the focus on minimising waste of time and daily travel requirements as part of our work-hours.

    But still, it’s a good initiative considered by the RCSC and hopefully even the employers will try to temporarily assign a job profile to the mothers with new born where they can remain reasonably productive. Such flexibility in job descriptions has to be well planned in every office. At the end, family planning is a responsibility of the parents when any change in the work environment will only make responsibilities a lot more manageable. Once again, it’s easy to be said than done.

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