Making eldercare leave mandatory

Making eldercare leave mandatory
Hospital clerk Joyce Lim feeding her mother, Madam Soon Kim Pian, 83. Ms Lim is among a growing number of people caring for family members who are old, frail and unable to look after themselves. An NTUC survey showed that 77 per cent of working caregivers do not have eldercare leave.

Herprit Kaur, 30, had to quit her job as an administrative assistant after her father, Mr Kahka Singh, 64, was seriously injured in a road accident in 2012.

The last straw came when her boss at the shipping firm where she worked foisted more work on her, when she wanted to leave early one evening as her father was undergoing a major operation.

"My mind was not on work and all I wanted was just a day off," said Ms Kaur. She spent long hours keeping a bedside vigil as her father underwent multiple operations in hospital.

Once he returned home, she had to arrange for his long-term care. He could not walk, change or use the bathroom by himself.

Despite money being tight, she hired a maid and returned to work as a travel and administration executive in a recruitment firm.

Working caregivers like her are in favour of mandatory eldercare, or parent care leave, to look after sick or aged parents.

"Even if it is just a few days a year, it will help since we won't need to feel guilty to take our parents for doctors' visits," said Ms Kaur who lives with her parents.

She has found a champion in Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, who has repeatedly called for the Government to seriously consider legislating eldercare leave.

Speaking at a conference on ageing on March 26, Madam Halimah said: "Even if it's only for a few days, it will provide great relief and is a strong signal that the Government supports families in their effort to care for their elderly at home."

An NTUC survey released last year showed that 77 per cent of working caregivers do not have eldercare leave. Among the caregivers who quit work, 21 per cent did so to take care of an elderly family member full time.

The Government is reviewing again the need for eldercare leave.

It had said no to similar calls earlier, heeding employers' concerns that unlike childcare leave, which is finite, no one knows how long an elderly person will need to be cared for.

Employers are also concerned that parent care leave can add to costs and be open to abuse.

Echoing the fears of many businesses, a reader wrote to The Straits Times Forum recently to say if mandated, parent care leave will become "yet another type of compulsory leave entitlement that is difficult to police, in the same way that childcare leave has become a statutory entitlement that is being used for whatever purpose the employee chooses".

But this need not be true, shows data from the Public Service Division (PSD), which oversees policies for the civil service.

Since 2012, civil servants here have been entitled to take two days off a year to care for parents. So far, only around three in 10 have used the leave, a PSD spokesman told The Straits Times. "There are officers who do not use it as they do not have such needs now," she said.

Caregivers' advocates such as Mr Manmohan Singh from the Awwa Centre for Caregivers say that in the latest review of the issue, policymakers must consider the economic costs of people quitting work altogether when a parent's condition deteriorates.

This not only affects caregivers financially but can also undermine their re-employment prospects.

"Besides, parent care leave would also signal that Singapore is truly pro-family in substance and deed, not just in word," he said. Countries like Britain already offer "family care leave" as opposed to childcare leave.

In fact, businesses in Britain have gone further, with some offering to even pay for caregiving packages for employees, just so that they don't quit.

An industry association called Employers for Carers has been set up specifically to guide businesses on how to retain employees who are caregivers.

More than 70 companies, including British Telecom, British Gas and the National Health Service are already on board, the BBC reported last month.

"One in nine in your workforce will be caring for someone who is ill, frail or has a disability," the organisation says on its website.

"In the current economic climate it is important to retain skilled workers rather than recruiting and retraining new staff."

This article was published on April 7 in The Straits Times.

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