A disservice to unmarried fathers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2011, 12:00am


The move by the government to introduce paternity leave for civil servants is welcome, but long overdue. Subject to the outcome of a consultation with staff, fathers of newborn children will be entitled to between three and five days' paid leave starting from the middle of next year. This is a necessary step that will be good for family bonding. It goes some way towards bringing Hong Kong in line with developments elsewhere in the world.

But it seems paternity leave will not be available to all civil servants. The government adopts a sensible approach by not differentiating on the basis of where the child is born, so the fathers of children born on the mainland will be covered. But the leave will only apply to married men. This is in keeping with other civil service regulations.

However, with more couples now choosing to have children without getting married first, the restriction on paternity leave appears outdated and unfair. The Equal Opportunities Commission is looking into it.

There is no reason why unmarried fathers should be discriminated against. The policy is intended to encourage men to share family responsibilities and spend valuable time with their child. This applies whether the father is married or not. Unmarried female government employees are, rightly, entitled to maternity leave. It makes no sense to impose such restrictions on male employees.

Officials have argued that benefits like medical and dental care are also only extended to legally married spouses. But it is wrong to treat paternity leave like an extended benefit. The inferior legal rights of a child born outside marriage were removed in the early 1990s. Fathers of such children should not have to face discrimination two decades later. This is a matter the government should consider.

The initiative is meant to make Hong Kong a more enjoyable place to live and work in. It is essential for the civil service to set a good example, and hopefully more private companies will follow.