When considering the return to work after having a baby, mothers have to weigh up the various pros and cons carefully. While childcare options and economic factors are important, less tangible reasons – such as work-life balance and parental bonding – also play their part in the decision to return to employment. Here, we consider some of the issues that mums and dads in Asian countries face in their new role as working parents.
Providing an opportunity to establish breastfeeding, bond as a family and recover from the rigours of labour and birth, a period of absence from work is now considered the norm. But despite some relatively progressive nations –including many Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom – now moving towards parity in paid parental leave of up to 12 months, shared between parents, Asian countries currently lag far behind their European counterparts.
In Hong Kong, mothers are currently granted 10 weeks of paid maternity leave, while fathers are entitled to just three days of paternity leave – increased in 2014 from the previous two-day allowance. Mums across the border in Mainland China fare relatively better and may take up to 14 weeks of paid leave, with an additional 15 days granted where an emergency caesarean section is required at birth, plus another 15 days for multiple births. Chinese dads, however, have no automatic entitlement to paternity leave, which is granted according to local municipal regulations and can vary from zero to 30 days. There is also some speculation that the recent relaxation of China’s one child policy may result in fewer government resources being available for families, resulting in a necessary reduction in maternity leave. Of all the Asian nations, Vietnam provides one of the most generous maternity leave allowances, consisting of six months’ leave at 100% of salary; however once again, dads draw the short straw with no paternity leave currently mandated in law.
This lack of ability for parents to share childcare naturally results in mothers shouldering the majority of the burden when it comes to childcare and domestic tasks during the postnatal period. And with 75% of Hong Kong’s mothers back in full-time employment at six months post-partum, another pressing issue is…
Unlike many Western countries, where regulated day-care centres offer parents the option to drop off young babies, Asian childcare is still mostly provided in the home, often by an elderly family member or domestic helper. This reliance on a single childcare provider has its disadvantages; if a carer is sick or otherwise unavailable, parents – usually mothers ¬– have no option but to take leave from work to care for their child. This, in turn, can have significant impact on their careers and will also limit the amount of time that they can take as holiday leave to spend with their families, negatively impacting on the overall quality of family life.
The World Health Organisation states, “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond”. The reality of trying to establish and maintain breastfeeding when a mother has to return to work after just a few weeks’ maternity leave makes achieving this recommendation extrememly difficult. Unless a company makes a voluntary provision for a pumping room, many working mothers are forced to express milk for their babies in bathrooms, an unsanitary practice which may contribute to the premature cessation of nursing. Many countries are alse cultually uncomfortable with the idea of breastfeeding, and mothers may find themselves under pressure from family members to wean their babies onto formula milk before they would otherwise be ready to do so.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for parents looking to navigate the world of work. According to the World Bank, Malaysia has Southeast Asia’s lowest female employment engagement rate, at just 46% of women aged 15 to 64 currently in employment. In collaboration with major companies like General Electric and Citibank, the Malaysian government is now seeking to address this issue and drive economic growth in the process, by encouraging more women back into the workplace. By offering attractive tax incentives to companies who establish nurseries and allow flexible working practices, Malaysia hopes to encourage women to remain within the workforce after starting their families (currently two-thirds of women leave employment, citing childcare issues as their main reason).
If more Asian countries were to follow Malaysia’s lead, we could see the dawn of a new era of equality, increased work-life balance for all parents and a positive economic outlook in the longer term, which is surely something that everyone – parents or not – can get on board with.