Gender equality

Taxpayer-subsidised maternity leave is questionable

The government subsidy to extend maternity leave is admirable from the worker’s point of view. But enhancing labour benefits should essentially be the employers’ responsibility

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 11:19pm

Thanks to our robust public finances in recent years, the Hong Kong government can afford to come up with generous concessions to businesses, the latest being a subsidy to offset part of the cost arising from the chief executive’s bid to extend maternity leave from 10 to 14 weeks. The approach looks admirable from the worker’s point of view. But the justification of using taxpayers’ money to help bosses pay the leave wages is questionable. After all, enhancing labour benefits is essentially the employers’ responsibility. If the government willingly steps in whenever there is resistance, no bosses would bother to give more benefits in the future. We also risk becoming a welfare state if such an approach is further entrenched.

The government sought to justify the subsidies, saying parental leave is usually financed by social insurance in overseas countries. But the proposal is actually more a case of political expediency. Officials may think a partial subsidy can help reduce business resistance. But the initial feedback is hardly reassuring. A pro-business lawmaker said employers would not thank the government even if the extra costs were to be fully subsidised. Small and medium-sized enterprises still had to cope will the loss of manpower, he said. The resistance is hardly surprising. But it does nothing for the reputation of the business sector.

Government subsidies could offset cost of maternity leave extension

This is not the first time businesses have been helped to finance worker benefits. The government has committed HK$17 billion over 12 years for support in scrapping the much-criticised rule allowing bosses to crawl back contributions from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme to offset long service and severance payments. But the business sector is still unimpressed and demands the government shoulders more. Similarly, the government is also facing opposition to its plan to raise paternity leave from three to five days. Is it going to finance that extra cost as well?

The mainland and Singapore lead Hong Kong with 14 and 16 weeks of maternity leave respectively. The case for Hong Kong to follow suit is well justified. But whether it should come at the taxpayers’ expense is questionable. The government must think carefully whether this is the right way to go.