Why Hong Kong is failing its young families

With its paltry maternity/paternity leave, inflexible working hours and lack of breastfeeding support at the office, Hong Kong is failing new parents, reports Angharad Hampshire.

Paediatrician Patricia Ip

"Hong Kong is a workplace not a family place," says Edith Lemardelee, a French maternity nurse who has worked in the city for more than 20 years. "There's absolutely no flexibility here for families."

She is responding to the question of whether the city's statutory maternity leave of 10 weeks at 80 per cent pay is adequate. I have put this question formally to 20 women of different nationalities and from various walks of life. Informally, I have discussed this subject with many more women. During these conversations, it quickly becomes clear that the maternity-leave question reflects, at a microcosmic level, attitudes in Hong Kong towards women, family, breastfeeding, equality, the place of a child within society and the role of government in family life.

"Nothing is made in Hong Kong for the mother," says Lemardelee, with clear frustration. "Local women here have 10 weeks [maternity leave] plus, if they're lucky, two weeks of annual leave, and then they are back. Forget breastfeeding - that usually stops when women go back to work. If not, they pump in the toilet. And mothers are made to feel guilty for wasting time when they pump or go to the doctor."

"It is not easy being a working mother in Hong Kong," agrees Prudence Li On-kan, a senior accountant in a local firm and mother of an eight-month-old girl. "You need a lot of support.

"I am lucky," says Li, who shares an 800 sq ft apartment in Tuen Mun with her husband, daughter and parents-in-law. "I have my parents-in-law helping me. My cousin, who had a baby girl three months ago, has to leave her at her mother's apartment from Monday to Friday. She only sees the baby at the weekend. So, she can't breastfeed and it's not good for her relationship with her baby."

Women make up 44.7 per cent of Hong Kong's workforce. This government statistic doesn't include foreign domestic workers (FDW), who are mainly female. Seventy-five per cent of women of childbearing age (16 to 45) work full-time in Hong Kong. A recent study showed that within six months of having a baby, 75 per cent of new mothers are back at work full-time.

Statutory maternity leave was introduced in Hong Kong in 1970 at 10 weeks with no pay. In 1981, maternity pay was brought in at two-thirds of average daily wages, paid for by the employer. The payment increased to 80 per cent in 1995. All women are entitled to the 10 weeks. However, in order to be eligible for paid leave, the employee must have started working not less than 40 weeks before her leave starts.

Maternity nurse Edith Lemardelee

In February, statutory paternity leave was introduced at three days on 80 per cent of average daily wages.

"The maternity leave protection scheme … gives women the right to abstain from work during the period before and after confinement [the month in which Chinese mothers remain at home after birth], so she can prepare for confinement, recover from birth and care for the newborn child," says Cecilia Chan Pui-ching, senior officer, labour relations, at the Labour Department. "Paternity leave provides a short duration of time to take care of the mother and child. The government will review the legislation after a year."

The penalty for unfair dismissal of a pregnant woman is HK$100,000, wages in lieu of notice, an additional month's pay and, if the employee is entitled to it, maternity pay. Under the Employment Ordinance, the employee should return under the same terms and conditions after maternity leave.

To provide some global context, Japan offers 14 weeks at two-thirds pay plus childcare leave for each parent until the child turns one, which is covered by labour insurance; Singapore provides 16 weeks at full pay; in the United States, there is no paid maternity leave - however, women can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they meet certain employment criteria; in Britain, maternity leave is up to a year with six weeks at 90 per cent pay, 33 at a flat rate and the rest unpaid; Australia offers 18 weeks at the national minimal wage and 52 weeks of unpaid leave shared between the parents. The most generous benefits are found, unsurprisingly, in Scandinavian countries. In Norway, statutory parental leave is either 46 weeks at full pay or 56 weeks at 80 per cent salary, divided between both parents.

The International Labour Organisation's Convention 183 calls for 14 weeks maternity leave at two-thirds pay and requires ratifying states to ensure work is safe for a pregnant woman and her child, that she is protected from discrimination during her pregnancy and maternity leave, that she returns to the same or equivalent position and that she has one or more breastfeeding breaks or a daily reduction in hours so she can breastfeed. Hong Kong has not ratified the convention, nor have any other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Statutory maternity leave in China is 14 weeks at full pay on either the employee's average monthly salary or the average monthly salary of all the employees at the firm, depending on which is higher, with a cap of three times the average salary in the local area. The Social Security Bureau pays for this, though it can be topped up by the employer. Women in China are also entitled to a one-hour break each day during normal working hours for expressing milk until the baby is one year old. In many cases, of course, women in China have until now been able to avail themselves of these allowances only once, because of the one-child policy.

When you talk to mothers in Hong Kong about returning to work, one of the biggest issues they mention is how hard it is to continue breastfeeding. The health benefits of breastfeeding are widely documented: optimal nutrition; the provision of antibodies; a reduction in hospital admissions; and the lowering of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes rates in mothers. Hong Kong issues the World Health Organisation's recommendation, which is to breastfeed exclusively until six months and then to continue to two years along with complementary foods.

"Anyone would agree that the employment related policies in Hong Kong don't help us achieve the WHO targets, in fact they provide barriers," says Marie Tarrant, associate professor and deputy head of the School of Nursing at the University of Hong Kong. "To have an eight-week-old baby at home and be going back to work, which, in Hong Kong, for most people, means working 10 or 12 hours a day, is just not a family-centred policy."

Senior accountant Prudence Li with her daughter.

Last year, Tarrant led a study that looked at the impact of returning to work on breastfeeding mothers in Hong Kong. Her team followed 1,738 women who had given birth in four public hospitals. Eighty-five per cent returned to work within 10 weeks, with more than 90 per cent of those returning full-time. Only one-third of those mothers were able to continue breastfeeding for more than two weeks after returning to work.

The Department of Health recently updated a pamphlet called "The Employer's Guide to Establishing a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace". It suggests allowing lactation breaks of an hour a day and providing a dedicated private space for these breaks and a fridge for storing the milk. However, these guidelines are not in place in most companies in Hong Kong.

"I found going back to work at 10 weeks emotionally hard," says Jackie Leung Yuen-ting, mother to a 23-month-old girl and a staff training and development manager for a furniture retailer who pumped in secret for 16 months. "It was also practically hard because I was breastfeeding and didn't tell my bosses. They wouldn't have understood why I wanted to breastfeed, so I pumped three times a day in secret at work in the disabled toilet. I hid the milk in a box in the refrigerator. I had to try to control my emotions so my milk supply wasn't affected. It was extremely difficult."

Pumping in the toilet is a common theme among nearly all the mothers I interview.

"A lot of people in Hong Kong still think that formula is better than breast milk," says Leung. "Some employers think that female employees will do an hour's less work a day if they are pumping milk and that's unfair for the men. When you return to work, most people think you should just give the baby formula. I would have liked six months maternity leave because, by that point, my daughter was eating some solid food. But frankly, I don't think the government is going to change maternity leave."

Tarrant has concerns about pumping: "We have just done a study, though not published it yet, on the increase in breast milk expression in Hong Kong over the past 10 years. It has increased; particularly the number of mothers who express exclusively and never feed the baby at the breast. There is a suggestion in the research that babies who are not fed off the breast - even if they are fed breast milk - have lower respiratory function because it's much harder to get milk out of a breast so the baby has to work harder, which improves their lung function and respiratory function. Also the breast is more self-regulating, whereas with a bottle, we see some of the similar problems we see with formula feeding, in that there's less regulation and babies are more likely to be overfed."

Patricia Ip Lai-sheung is a paediatrician and vice-chairman of the Unicef Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association, which is trying to boost breastfeeding rates in Hong Kong by improving hospital practices.

"Breastfeeding is about more than just nutrition," Ip says. "Direct breastfeeding is about the interaction between mother and child. The hormonal effects in the mother when she is breastfeeding improve the motherly behaviour. The child makes gestures - babbling, gurgling, eye contact - and the mother responds. It all builds a strong bond.

"I pumped three times a day in secret at work in the disabled toilet. I hid the milk in a box in the refrigerator"

"Let's talk about child rights for a minute. It's the right of the mother to choose but it's also the right of the child to this high standard of health. This is laid down in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 24. In a lot of areas, the Hong Kong government is not fulfilling its duty to this convention. It doesn't seem to realise that by signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, you have a duty to the children.

"In Hong Kong, there is a lot of encouragement but actually we need legislation," Ip continues. "Certain legislation gets done very quickly - for example, restricting the number of tins of formula you can take out of Hong Kong. However, with other issues, the government is hesitant. Let's bring this back to labour law; having 10 weeks of maternity leave is really not conducive to breastfeeding, which we all accept affords the child the highest standard of health."

If the government is so keen on breastfeeding, what about legislating for statutory pumping breaks, as is the case in the mainland?

"In Hong Kong, most of the employers are small- and medium-sized enterprises," says Chan. "If we introduce compulsory instead of voluntary good practices in workplaces, we have to consult whether this is feasible or whether it's impracticable for most employers. We need to do some kind of consultation and gather some consensus in the community before we can assess whether this kind of law should be made into legislation."

Ip would like the government to offer solutions.

"The birth rate in Hong Kong is dismally low, one of the lowest in the world," she says. "We keep having conversations about the sustainability of the population and encouraging people to have children. With the surplus in the treasury, what is required to support mothers to take longer maternity leave would be minimal. There is no need to burden employers with the cost. If the government thinks about all these issues, it's not difficult to solve."

Marie Tarrant, of HKU's School of Nursing

Sally Ryder is founder and director of Ryder Diamonds, a bespoke jeweller that employs nine staff, eight of whom are women. Ryder is a recent first-time mother. Although her company gives the statutory 10 weeks paid maternity leave, she took only two weeks off when her son arrived five weeks before his due date.

"I didn't have the time to plan how I'd cover my maternity leave, which was at the same time as that of a really key employee," says Ryder. "It was also our busiest time of the year. I had no choice but to go back. It was incredibly stressful as a mum and an employer. In the end, I gave up breastfeeding after six weeks. I would have loved to have three to four months but I just couldn't afford to do that.

"As an employer, as a woman and now a mum, I don't think 10 weeks is long enough, so the maternity leave that my staff have taken has been about four months. I can only pay the statutory 10 weeks and I do find managing it tough.

"I don't want to sound discriminatory but as a small-business owner, the financial strain it puts on the business of employing someone who could potentially leave on maternity leave is a huge consideration to me when I am hiring, now. I don't want to be in the position where I am making that choice. It's a government policy to make businesses pay for maternity cover. I think it should be a cost for the government. To have some kind of assistance from the government would change attitudes to employing women."

Would the government consider offering this kind of financial support?

"In Hong Kong, historically, the employer pays for maternity benefits," says Chan. "If the state were to pay, it would be a fundamental change to the principle and the whole system. A central fund would have to be set up, or insurance or social security. If such a change was implemented it would have far-reaching implications and so, for the time being, the system is simple, with no other administrative costs. It would be quite a radical change."

So that's a no, then. There are, however, other aspects of work that could make it easier for families - for example, flexible hours.

"Part-time options - job sharing, working from home - that sort of flexibility doesn't exist here and if it does, it's in very small pockets," says Norma Teggart Freeman, a Briton who resigned from her job at a multinational company after being told there would be no flexibility after she returned from maternity leave. Her daughter is now eight months old.

"My old company would have retained me if they'd said, 'Take as long as you want unpaid and when you come back, we'll work out something flexible for you.' I understand it's difficult for business. I would never have expected to come back to my exact role. But as a high-performing employee who had worked for them for quite some time, I would have liked to have been able to take the right amount of time off - be it unpaid leave, a sabbatical, leave of absence, whatever - and to be told that they'd try to make it work for me to come back. And that, if that didn't work, we'd mutually agree to say goodbye. But that wasn't on the table. So, I decided to take my skills elsewhere."

Jeweller Sally Ryder with her son.

Teggart Freeman is currently working with a business partner to develop a company that offers high-level, flexible administrative and secretarial services.

"In Hong Kong, having a baby is treated like a problem to be swept under the carpet. You're in and out in 10 weeks and expected to be fine. In any developed society, to say that this is enough for a new mother and baby is astonishing. And what is even more astonishing is that here it is just OK and people live with it. I know people have to do it financially because they have no choice but there should be some choice," she says.

"One of the issues with the female workforce is that we lose a lot of incredibly talented women along the way because it's so difficult to strike a decent balance between work and being a parent," says Joanna Kalenska, managing director of the digital ad agency Razorfish Hong Kong.

Kalenska, who is from Poland, manages 55 employees and offers flexibility as a strategy for retaining workers after they have had a baby, including the option to work from home one day a week.

"My priority is to make sure we have really good people in the company," she says. "When we can see people as humanity and not just a workforce, it creates a good culture and a happy and better working environment. If our team has a happy family life and feels reasonably fulfilled on both sides, it ultimately benefits everyone."

Grandparents or other relatives provide childcare for working parents in two-thirds of Hong Kong families with children. Most of the other families rely on a domestic helper.

"For overall development it's best to have a parent at home," says Leung, who takes her toddler to her parents-in-law each day. "Helpers don't speak Cantonese as a first language and many grandparents may not either. Also grandparents spoil their grandchildren and let them do whatever they want. At the weekends, my daughter doesn't understand why I say 'no' to things her grandparents say 'yes' to."

Leung is also worried that childcare is taking its toll on her 70-year-old father-in-law and says this puts them off having a second child.

"This idea of somebody else looking after your baby - for example, a helper - has its negatives," says Anya Cluer, a Briton who works as a textile designer for a global supplier and employs a domestic helper to look after her 14-month-old son. "It's emotionally complicated and I found that very difficult. I was just finding who I was as a mother and then there's someone else who has opinions and is forming a relationship with the baby. And, I find, looking at other mothers around me, they become so reliant on their helper that they feel they can't cope without her.

“Here, it’s just assumed you will get a helper or have grandparents who can look after the child”

"It's actually quite sad and gets in the way of becoming a mother. Part of being a mum is dealing with putting a baby to sleep and feeding a baby, even when it's difficult, not just handing the baby over. Here, it's just assumed you will get a helper or have grandparents who can look after the child. This is seen as the solution, but it creates all these other problems. Parents need to find out how to parent properly themselves. The short maternity leave perpetuates this culture."

FDWs make up 10 per cent of Hong Kong's working population. Despite the fact that domestic helpers are covered by the same maternity rights as all other women in Hong Kong, frequently, their situation does not reflect these rights.

"In our experience, the foreign domestic worker's employment is invariably unlawfully terminated once the pregnancy is discovered or announced," says Kay McArdle, chief executive of PathFinders, an NGO that protects the most vulnerable children born in Hong Kong and their migrant worker mothers.

Within two weeks of the employment being terminated, the FDW's visa typically expires and she and her unborn child are no longer eligible to access public health care, even if she is claiming unfair dismissal or making a discrimination claim, both being legal processes which take a long time. While those claims are pending, she not only has no access to public health care for herself or her child but is also not allowed to work [very few employers will hire a pregnant worker] and therefore has no income. She has nowhere to live, having been dependent on her employer for accommodation under the Immigration Department's live-in rule. Having been the victim of unlawful treatment, the FDW, and then the baby once born, are left homeless, penniless and unsupported precisely when their lives are at their most precarious.

"We need to focus on the well-being of the child and nobody is doing that," says McArdle. "This would help alleviate some of the consequences that we see: for example, the abandoned child or the unregistered, unimmunised, undocumented and uneducated child who walks through our doors at 16 years old."

The live-in rule, under which a helper has to live in with their employer during her maternity leave, makes it especially hard for all parties on a practical level. McArdle would like to see this rule reviewed with specific guidance given about maternity arrangements.

"A woman's right to reproduce is enshrined in both domestic and international legislation," she says. "Most of the 340,000 FDWs who come here are women of childbearing age. We shouldn't be surprised that some of these women become pregnant and, actually, the numbers are very small. We should recognise the fact that female employees, regardless of the job they do, are entitled to exactly the same maternity leave as you or me. This is a fundamental human right for both the woman and the child."

the best maternity arrangements in the world: 16 months parental leave, of which the mother must take three months and the father two months (to be extended to three months next year). Either parent can take the remaining time up to the full 16 months. All this at 80 per cent pay, covered by the government up to a ceiling of €4,000 (HK$35,000) per month.

Kristina Liljas, who is Swedish, is a global HR business partner for an international firm in Hong Kong. She has a six-month-old boy for whom she received local statutory maternity leave as well as a couple of months of unpaid leave.

"It's hard to pinpoint an ideal amount of maternity leave for Hong Kong as it's so individual," Liljas says. "But six months would be a good start. On top of this, Hong Kong's three days of paternity leave is ridiculous, more for the father than anything. What does it say about how important it is for a father to bond with a child? Three days? It's nothing.

"In Sweden, the paid paternity leave for fathers has caused a change in mindset. If you have companies where male employees right up to chief executives take two months off work, it changes the way the workplace views men and women. As an employer, when you are hiring, it's not necessarily worse to hire a woman who may have a child because when you hire a man you are also hiring a potential father. In our industry today, women are penalised because we are the ones who have to be at home, at least initially. We don't have a choice and therefore, when it comes to promotions and salary development, we end up falling behind."

Sweden's mindset is so far ahead that companies knowingly employ pregnant women.

"I'd love to see more employers hiring pregnant ladies," says Liljas. "In Sweden, they get hired because the company knows she'll have her maternity leave and then come back. It's a long-term view.

"I truly hope that Hong Kong can become more progressive. I think it's linked to the bigger picture, which has got to do with equality between men and women in the workforce. People will argue it's impossible here, that it can't be done. But 60 years ago in Sweden, we didn't have maternity leave. A hundred years ago, women didn't have the right to vote. It needs to start somewhere and you need role models for it to happen.

"You don't have to give up your job or compromise your career to have a family. It can actually happen."


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: No friend of the family