Mothers are not the only ones who can raise children: let’s share parental leave

Paternity, maternity and parental leave - labourflaws.comBy Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. If you are expecting a baby, or if you are adopting one, you will be able to stay at home for an entire year, most likely on full pay, and raise your child. That is, if you live and work in Croatia. You don’t even have to be the mom – as a dad, you are also entitled to parenting leave; you might even be forced to take it before your kid turns 8. That is, if you are lucky enough to live and work in Sweden. You are less lucky if you live in the USA, where there is no statutory paid leave neither for moms nor dads, but you may stay at home for 12 weeks with your newborn. This is on par with Papua New Guinea on the other side of the Pacific, where you may however use your statutory sick leave or annual leave pay to look after your baby for 6 weeks (based on 2015 ILO international statistics) .

Maternity and paternity leave regulations in South Africa

If you happen to live and work in South Africa, you’re somewhere in the middle. Well, at least if you’re the mother. Maternity leave is regulated under section 25 of the BCEA (Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1997, last amended in 2014). The minimum amount of maternity leave is set at four consecutive months. There is no obligation on the employer’s side to pay you while you’re on leave, unless there is a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a union that regulates paid maternity leave.

However, you have the right to statutory payment. This means you may claim from your UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) – but only if you have been contributing to it for a minimum of four months. Maternity benefits are paid for a total of 17.32 weeks (six weeks only in the case of a miscarriage or stillborn child), and at 38% -60% of your average earnings six months prior to going on maternity leave – depending on your level of income. (For more information, view sections 12-13, 24 and the Second Schedule of the Unemployment Insurance Act of 2001.) Recent update: The Unemployment Insurance Amendment Act was assented to by the President and the amendment came into effect on 19 January 2018. One of the amendments (section 12) affects maternity leave in that it provides for a fixed rate of payment of maternity leave; there is also an extended maternity leave in the case of miscarriage, and an extended window to apply for maternity benefits, among other changes. The amendments however still have the mother as the focal point and do not include fathers or substitutes; except in the case of death of the mother being the main contributor to the UIF. 

In this, South Africa follows the recommendations by the ILO (International Labour Organization) which suggest a minimum maternity leave duration of 14 weeks and a compensation (to women) of at least 66.7 per cent of their previous earnings. This standard is met by most countries, above all those in former Eastern Europe, with an average of 27 weeks paid statutory leave.

Why is it that mothers are often entitled to much more parental leave, than fathers? Do you know that as a father in South Africa, you may only take the three family responsibility paid leave days for when your child is born (unless you request special leave or unpaid leave)? If you are a dad, you know that three days barely cover the time needed for a baby to open their eyes properly and see you.

I think that our current labour regulations to this regard still stem from a time when women were expected to stop working once they had children, and where extended family still supported each other when a new baby arrived – with the father bringing in the bread and butter. But times have moved on. In recent news, South African parliament was told that fathers should get a minimum of 10 days of paternity leave – which is more than they receive presently, but hardly enough. Even as a mother, the four months of statutory maternity leave are perhaps not enough from the baby’s perspective. I am not a psychologist, but as a mother myself, I know that the first year of bonding is crucial to a new human being. And this bonding should happen both between the mother and the child, and also the father and the child.

Paternity leave or parental leave? Or maybe a temporary parental nominee?

I suggest we go a step further – not just in South Africa, but in many other countries including Switzerland and Australia. Rather than fighting for (more) paternity leave, we should create a “parental leave pool” that is shared between parents. Scandinavian countries already offer such; so let’s take it another step forward. How about the definition of “parents” is widened to include other caretakers during the crucial time of infancy? This especially in cases where a child is born to a single parent only – be it that it’s by choice, or that one parent is in prison, or works overseas, or has passed away.

I think there is scope – especially in a country with a progressive Constitution such as South Africa – to introduce the concept of a birth mother/birth father temporary replacement in cases where there is only one parent present at birth.

Its’ a concept whereby as an only parent to a new child, you nominate a secondary caregiver who will share the “parental leave pool” with you – let’s say this pool is set at statutory parental leave of six months. You as the mother might take four months of leave, and your nominated temporary “other parent” takes the next two months, while also being paid through UIF or even through the company’s policy, if they are in employ. Of course would there have to be limits to the amount of times a “temporary birth parent” could apply for shared parental leave.  If however a birth father is present, and if he is part of the family nucleus, he should be the preferred partner to share paternity leave with.

Positive results for working mothers and fathers

We must stop assuming that mothers are the default caretakers. There is no reason why a father can’t, and shouldn’t be at home on paid statutory leave. In times where often both parents work, and where the gender role bias is slowly being eroded, time away from work while on parental leave is not a paid holiday – like some may see it. It is hard work, on little sleep, and there is hardly any time off for leisure activities – including weekends.

It is equally often not easy to get back into the working game after the time spent with a baby at home; especially so in cases where there is no post-parental-leave on-boarding set up by the employer and you dive straight back into your job. Often, your job will also have been slightly re-structured as the organisation might have changed and grown in your absence. In some cases, you miss out on being promoted, and you may even be overlooked when annual salary increases are discussed – due to the fact that an employer may be of the opinion that you have already had a long paid leave, especially if they compensated you based on their staff policy or collective agreements. More often than not, this form of hidden discrimination and associated knock in career-planning has a much bigger effect on mothers than fathers, especially in countries where there is only maternity leave, or paternity leave is regulated through labour law, but not enforced.

When fathers are allowed to be more involved in parenting, mothers have more time an energy to commit to paid work, too. Fathers who are on paternity leave after their child is born are much more likely to be involved in their child’s upbringing, and this way past the stages of bottle-feeding and nappy-changing. They form a bond with their newborn – just like mothers do.  After Sweden redesigned its policy so that a father had to take at least two months paternity leave before his child turns eight years old, 85% of fathers took leave. The result? Swedish mothers’ income rose by 7 percent for every month of leave their husbands took. Quebec in Canada created similar magic through the establishment of their “daddy quota” (five weeks paid leave for fathers): fathers on “daddy quota” leave increased the time spent doing household and child-rearing duties by 23%, while mothers became more likely to take on full employment, were able to work longer hours, and started earning more.

Could shared parental leave be the way forward?

Is it utopian, or are we ready to introduce this new way of thinking? If you are a working father reading this blog (and if you made it all the way here – I know it’s a long one!); what are your thoughts, your hopes, your experience? Would you welcome shared parental leave, or at least more paternity leave? According to data from the International Social Survey Programme, at least 5o% of people who believe that paid leave should be available to parents, also believe that the leave should be taken entirely or mostly by the mother.In some countries such as the Czech Republic and Turkey) this is as high as 80%.

And back in South Africa – what do the courts say about the contested matter of paternity and maternity leave, and the question of who is entitled to take such? In the case MIA v State Information Technology Agency (Pty) Ltd (2015),  the Labour Court acknowledged that in order to properly address the issue of paternity leave, the legislation and BCEA would need to be amended to safeguard the protections afforded in the Civil Union Act and the Children’s Act. This decision paves the way for fathers to argue that they too should be entitled to ‘maternity’ leave in appropriate circumstances. Furthermore,  section 28 of the South African Constitution states that “every child has a right… to family care or parental care.” And “parental care” does not mean, mothers only.

World map indicating countries with paternity and maternity leave regulated by national law - Labourflaws

Light red areas = countries with maternity leave but not paternity leave. Dark red = maternity and paternity leave as per national laws. Source: http://www.time.com (2015)

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