Single working parents: double the burden, half the benefits


single parents and workplace discrimination - Labourflaws

By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. As a working parent in South Africa, you are entitled to 3 days of paid family responsibility leave (depending). If you are a single parent, you pray your child will never get the Measles. If you are a single mother, it may be even worse due to the fact that you are often expected to be able to cope on your own – you’re a mother, after all. Most of us who see a single dad, are astonished at how he does it, we want to care for him, and help him out – as we were raised to believe that only mothers can raise children. When we see a single mom, we often think she either did something wrong to be in this situation, and/or that she can certainly handle her life on her own.

Admittedly, these are stereotypes, but take it from someone who was a single parent for 12 years, raising her daughter alone while working full time, that these stereotypes are not far fetched. I have also come across countless individuals, one of them former employers of mine, who rendered their genuine support and valued my efforts in trying to do a fantastic job both as an employee as well as a mother (driver, nurse, cook, cleaner, friend, administrator, the list is long).

Family responsibility leave: even less for single parents

This gender-based stereotypical thinking also permeates the workplace. In my opinion, even most labour legislation  is founded in a world view that is fast becoming outdated: One of the industrialised and unionised workplace, the Christian family where parents are married, and one that is based on a clear separation of gender roles. Take for instance “family responsibility leave”. The South African Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) sets this at a minimum of 3 days paid leave per working year, per employee (subject to having been in employ for four months, and working at least four days a week).

Anyone who has kids knows that children are easily sick for more than 3 days a year (just imagine they have the measles…). If you are a working parent, this creates an impossible impasse. The creche or school will raise the red flag and ban your kid from attending, and you can’t leave them at home alone either. Now in a world where one parent is at home (traditionally the mother) and the other works (traditionally the father), this does not necessarily pose an issue to the working parent, as he or she can rely on the one at home to take care of the sick child. The 3 days will probably never have to be booked, unless it’s for a different reason related to family responsibility, such as mourning a death or celebrating a birth.

We don’t say for no reason that “it takes a village to raise a child“. In a scenario where both parents work – which is fast becoming the norm – 6 days between them is not a lot of paid family responsibility leave. It becomes even less, exactly half, if the employee is a single parent. And to consider that worldwide, 85 % of single parent households are headed by women (most of whom are also the sole bread-winners) puts a whole new spin on economic development and a peaceful society.

Discrimination on grounds of single parenthood

Many single parents who need to generate an income often don’t even get to the stage of getting a mere 3 days family responsibility and other leave entitlement. Why? They are simply not employed, that’s why. Or they are, but if they are absent for more than the average employee at the workplace, they may be dismissed for low work performance, especially if they are still on probation. If the dismissal can be linked to listed grounds of discrimination, such as “family responsibility”, then it may automatically be declared as unfair. However, and this may be another flaw in the South African and other discrimination law, the EEA (Employment Equity Act) does not list “single parenthood”as a ground for unfair discrimination, and it may be extremely difficult to prove unfair discrimination on a wider definition of family responsibility (usually associated with dismissing someone for spending too much time with a sick child at home, but not necessarily with not being selected in an application process), or arbitrary grounds.

While it is a discriminatory act to exclude candidates from job interviews or final placement selection due to the fact that they have children or other family responsibilities, such cannot be monitored, and hardly ever proven. From my 18 years of experience as an employee, manager and generally curious world citizen, this happens more often than not. It’s silent, as it’s just a selection filter applied by hiring managers, HR or recruiters, and goes unrecorded. The thought that single parents are less productive still prevails. There is still that idea among employers and bosses that a single parent will by nature by more physically and mentally absent, and will show less focus and energy at work. I think that more of them should wake up to reality: countless research shows how this is not necessarily the case.


It never helps to state an issue without also looking for possible solutions. Here are some alternative ideas:

  • National advocacy through public information, and this already at schools, leading to a mind shift and to the empowerment of single working parents;
  • Revision and rewrite of current workplace manuals addressing discrimination on a wide scale;
  • Embracing of new human capital trends – it is not just about preventing conflict between millennials and baby boomers, but much more about the fact that work should not be isolated from life outside of the workplace, as one affects the other;
  • Amendment to current labour legislation through civic action such as was initiated by Sonke Gender Justice and other parties to review paternity leave entitlement in South Africa;
  • Open discussion between single parent employees, teams and managements with the aim at creating a flexible policy that is fair to all, and supports the single parent, such as working from home when the child is sick;
  • Introduce daycare-centres at the workplace with sick bays, so that the parent can check in on the child regularly – or go a step further, and offer unlimited leave as initiated by Richard Branson;
  • Research Swedish parental leave initiatives and adapt them to a different socio-economic context such as we find in developing countries.

If you are lucky enough to live near a beach, do me a favour – next time you see a mother or a father play with a child on their own, go up to them and have a conversation.


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