Father Ivan Wong Chin (right) was able to enjoy paternity leave thanks to new company policy. Photo: Edmond So

Paternity leave is only a baby step

Victoria Wisniewski Otero says Hong Kong's plan to give new fathers time off work is a good start, but complementary policies must follow

If Hong Kong is to be a world-class city, it is going to have to bring its parental leave entitlements up to global standards. According to the International Labour Organisation, at least 49 countries in the world provide some form of paternity leave. Recent developments to introduce a law granting a three-day statutory paternity leave are a good start, but more efforts need to be made to improve work-life balance for both women and men.

Women have made great strides over the past decades in the formal labour market; however, they continue to bear a disproportionate burden in the care economy. Paid maternity leave without corresponding paternity leave reinforces the traditional expectation that women are the primary caretakers.

Women who choose to return to work after having children often face a "maternity penalty" not felt by men; their earnings and career status suffer, often affecting the rest of their professional trajectories. Statutory paternity leave encourages the sharing of family responsibilities at home, and promotes gender equality in the workforce.

In Hong Kong, which has an ageing society with one of the lowest birthrates in the world, the government must work harder to raise fertility rates as an economic imperative. One way would be to help families strike a better work-life balance - another indicator in which Hong Kong ranks low. Granting parental leave would help people cope with work duties and daily living.

Moreover, worker satisfaction is good for the employer, as well. Empirical evidence shows that the cost of granting three to five days' paternity leave would be negligible on the wage bill. But in any case, the benefits of providing a better work-life balance will outweigh short-term profitability losses. In determining the costs and gains from paternity leave, policymakers must factor into their equation the intangible benefits of worker happiness on their productivity, as well as the returns to societal welfare and family harmony.

In many countries where paternity leave is offered, many fathers do not take advantage of their legal entitlements for fear of being stigmatised or penalised in the workplace if they did. For example, a survey of 1,000 men in Britain last year found that 41 per cent of men would not take the extended leave made available by new rules in Britain, despite 70 per cent reporting dissatisfaction with the previous statutory allowance.

Therefore, complementary measures need to be put in place for men to combat negative stereotypes.

Questions about the eligibility criteria, funding, flexibility and other details of such a proposed measure remain, but the consensus is growing that Hong Kong must join most of the developed world and many of its Asian neighbours in introducing a statutory paternity leave or shared parental leave.

As economies grow, governments have an obligation to progressively improve the labour rights of their societies commensurate with increases in levels of development, without discrimination.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Baby steps