By Andy Ho, Senior Writer
INTRODUCED in April 2001, the Baby Bonus Scheme was meant to help end the baby dearth among citizens. Yet, with $230 million paid out in baby bonuses in 2008 compared to $55 million in 2003, only 32,423 citizens were born last year, just 129 more than five years earlier.
Most working mothers appreciate the cash but their childcare responsibilities after pregnancy and childbirth remain unaddressed. A working mother with two small children will find juggling her employment duties and childcare responsibilities so difficult, she will in all probability consider a third child unthinkable.
Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, a National University of Singapore sociologist, believes that what couples need more than baby bonuses are more enlightened employers willing to offer them flexible workplace arrangements. Baby bonuses aren't likely to work if conflicts between work and family, which disproportionately burden women, are not also remedied.
Right now, employers may not discriminate against a female worker who becomes pregnant. This reflects our society's commitment to a formal equality between the sexes. However, employers are not required to recognise that women will have childcare obligations that will last at least 12 years after childbirth.
It is women, whether they work outside the home or not - and not men - who will be their children's primary caregivers. But our laws fail to recognise this cultural expectation. The reason may be that pregnancy and childbirth are seen as biological and thus immutable reasons for making workplace accommodations, like giving women paid maternity leave. By contrast, childcare is seen as a responsibility that women choose to take on board the day they choose to become mothers.
The fact is, the ideal worker, whether male or female, can work endless hours only because some woman - wife or maid - is taking care of the childcare and household work. Since men don't generally help out very much in childcare, some women have compensated by staying single, putting off pregnancy if they marry, delegating childcare to maids, or not having any babies at all.
Irrespective of whether women are by nature caregivers or not, and given that it is quite hard to reject culturally assigned roles, it might be more productive to simply recognise that it is child-bearing and child-rearing that enable our society to stay in existence at all. Thus says Associate Professor Josephine Lang, who teaches human resources management at Nanyang Technological University's business school.
She argues that it is child-rearing that ultimately provides the worker-consumer-voter who sustains our society. This means that child-bearing and child-rearing comprise an indispensable form of national service. If so, employers should help bear some of the costs of this national service by offering working mothers flexible work arrangements.
Generally, human resource policies aim for uniformity in the interest of fairness to all, Prof Lang notes. But how is it fair to working mothers for workplace policies to be tailored for men and single women with no childcare duties?
But flexible work arrangements need to be customised, which is difficult to do. Rather than waiting for employers to take the initiative, Prof Lang suggests adopting a British statute called The Flexible Working (Procedural Requirements) Regulations 2002.
British workers who are also the primary caregiver for a child under six years old have a 'right to request' flexible work arrangements - such as flexi-time, shorter work weeks, and so on. The law lays down a fair process that requires both sides to take certain steps, with 'best practices' laid down as well.
It is the worker who customises how her own 'carefully thought-out' proposal for her flexible work arrangements might work out and how they might impact her co-workers. The written proposal, which must also suggest steps to offset any adverse consequences of her proposed arrangements, becomes the basis for constructive engagement on how to make the arrangements work for both sides.
The employer is required to give the proposal serious consideration and meet the worker to discuss her proposal. Reasons must be offered in writing for any rejection within 14 days. The valid reasons may only be business costs or management conflicts - backed by facts.
A second meeting is mandated to discuss a rejection. If the employer does not undertake these steps, the worker may appeal to an employment tribunal, which can fine the employer. The worker is also protected against employer retaliation.
In practice, about 30 per cent of employers have received such requests after the law was passed, with 75 per cent of eligible workers getting what they asked for without resorting to a tribunal. Costs were a concern for 13 per cent of employers.
Perhaps the Government, perhaps a Member of Parliament - perhaps even Prof Straughan, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament - can take the appropriate steps to amend our Employment Act to give working mothers the 'right to request' flexible work arrangements so as to accommodate their childcare duties. If the Government subsidises some of the increased costs this might entail, things could work out well. Then the Baby Bonus Scheme might indeed bear fruit.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.