It’s obvious that work-life balance, or the lack of it, has had a strong part to play in lowering Singapore’s birthrate.
No matter how much money you can claim from the government’s Baby Bonus, trying to raise a child while both of you work not just full-time, but also long hours, is plain gruelling, and not so great for the kid, either.
This is made worse by the fact that working mothers often get the short end of the stick at the workplace. Employers tend to be reluctant to hire women they perceive as desirous of starting a family. I’ve been asked point blank during interviews whether I planned to start a family, and have heard interviewers complaining about how their previous employees ran off and got pregnant.
Clearly, things are going to need to change at work if Singaporeans are going to feel like they can safely raise a child without being betrayed by their employers.
And what should be done is not to simply give mothers more concessions. The more concessions mothers receive, the more likely employers are to hire and promote men over women.
Instead, parenthood concessions should be given equally to both mothers and fathers. The Singapore government insists that a family unit must consist of a mother and father, so it’s time that that was reflected in workplace polices, too.
Here are three things that can boost gender equality and the birthrate at the same time.
1. Equal parental leave for both mothers and fathers
Right now, eligible working fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leavefunded by the government. Meanwhile, the minimum maternity leave entitlement is 16 weeks, with the first 8 weeks being paid by the employer and the last 8 weeks reimbursed by the government.
Believe me when I say that many companies are not happy to have to pay maternity leave, and are quite open about it. And while it is illegal to dismiss an employee because of her pregnancy, pregnant workers still complain about discrimination, with some employers trying to get them to resign or trying to find other excuses to fire them.
The message received by most employers is that childrearing is still a mother’s responsibility, and as a result hiring a man is a safer bet as even if he has children he will be less of a liability.
What’s more, with fathers receiving only two weeks of paternity leave, mothers often find themselves left alone at home to deal with the first few weeks of childrearing.
Instituting an equal amount of maternity and paternity leave would not only go some way towards equalising the childrearing burden, it would also alert employers to the fact that men, as much as women, have the right to take time off work to look after the kids.
Hopefully, with mothers receiving more support in their careers and fathers taking on a greater share of the childrearing responsibilities, having kids will seem like less of an insurmountable burden for working mothers. And who knows, it might also allow parents to rotate and take turns going back to work, which ends up being less disruptive overall than one parent taking an inordinately larger amount of leave from work.
2. Cap on the number of hours worked
In Japan, people are dying of overwork. There is even a word for it—karoshi. But guess what, according to the number of hours worked in Singapore, which are some of the world’s highest, it’s only a matter of time before we have our first case of karoshi, too.
Right now, the only workers who are protected by the Manpower Act in terms of number of hours worked, rest days and overtime are non-workmen earning up to $2,500, or workmen earning up to $4,500.
That means those executives who slave away at Raffles Place till midnight are not protected by the Manpower Act. It’s perfectly legal for their bosses to make them work 80 hour weeks. In fact, a recent news report revealed that Singaporeans work an average of 2,371.2 paid hours a year, which is higher than Japan and South Korea.
It’s easy to see why this would have a negative effect on the birth rate. Who wants to raise kids when they’re spending all their waking hours at the office?
What’s more, excessively long working hours are not just family-unfriendly, but also favour men, especially those with stay-at-home wives who can take care of everything at home for them.
When it comes to dual income families, women are still doing the lion’s share of the housework and child-rearing, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage at the workplace as they are unable to commit as many hours to work.
It might be time to admit that the culture of long-hours in Singapore is getting excessive, and to institute a maximum number of hours per week, beyond which employers will have to pay OT or give employees days off-in-lieu.
If the problem of excessively long hours is not solved, it’s unrealistic to expect any improvement in the birth rate.
3. Flexible working arrangements for all, not just mothers
The government has been trying to convince businesses to offer flexible working arrangements, even going so far as to offer the Work-Life Grant to companies who implement such arrangements.
The civil service has led the way, with some stat boards offering staggered hours or work-at-home days to their employees.
This is a step in the right direction, but many businesses have been reluctant to loosen their grip on their employees, fearing that they’ll take advantage of their generosity to slack off.
The way forward is simply to keep educating businesses and helping them to get started in offering flexi-work arrangements.
And these arrangements should be open not only to working mothers, but to all staff who can work effectively while taking advantage of them.
When working mothers aren’t singled out as the ones who are always the first to ask for flexible work arrangements, employers’ prejudice towards them will be diminished.
Flexi-work arrangements not only make child-rearing easier, they also raise everyone else’s quality of life. Without having to commute to their offices during rush hour every day, single employees will have the flexibility to pursue their interests, run errands, see loved ones and, just maybe, get coupled up and procreate.