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Why maternity leave is such a hot issue

By Rosemary Bolger | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-19 07:04

You'd think offering mothers of newborns more paid time off would be music to the ears of those planning to have a family one day, but not all women have welcomed moves by China's provinces to extend paid maternity leave.

Since 2012, Chinese women have been entitled to at least 98 days paid maternity leave. But since the introduction of the two-child policy at the start of last year, many provinces and regions keen to lift the birth rate now require employers to go above and beyond that, resulting in a patchwork of incentives for new parents across China.

The Tibet autonomous region is set to become the most generous in the country, granting mothers a whole year at home with their newborns. Fathers will also be able to access 30 days paid leave.

Why maternity leave is such a hot issue

That overtakes Guangdong's 208 days, which was previously China's longest, and is up there with the best in the world.

Sweden is often mentioned as the model in this area, granting the primary carer 56 weeks of paid time off to be taken any time in the child's first eight years. The time can be shared between either parent.

At the other end of the scale, the United States is one of four countries that doesn't have paid maternity leave, with the idea dismissed as a job killer.

During last year's presidential campaign, Donald Trump floated six weeks of paid maternity leave that was typically light on detail. Surprise, surprise, there has been little talk of it since he stepped into the Oval Office.

In the middle is the United Kingdom, which guarantees mothers 39 weeks of paid leave, and Australia mandates 18 weeks.

While the benefits of supporting parents to spend more time with their child in the first months of their life are well-documented, governments mandating paid maternity leave tend to be more focused on economic matters. China is one of many countries grappling with an aging population and the worrying effect that will have on the workforce, healthcare costs and taxes. When the birth rate dropped to record lows in Australia a decade ago, a top official famously implored couples: "You should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country."

Inserting national duty into family planning only goes so far; easing the economic burden of another mouth to feed is more effective.

But rather than celebrating China's progress in this area, it appears some women are worried.

On social media, commenters expressed concern that it would put women at a disadvantage in the workforce. A 26-year-old woman commented that she was "often asked if I have a boyfriend and if I am planning to get married in the near future during interviews with employers".

Demographer He Yafu has suggested the government offer subsidies to enterprises that hire female workers to ease the burden caused when they have children. While that might work, governments shouldn't have to pay a company not to discriminate against women. Getting the best person for the job should be motivation enough and if not, governments should focus more on changing employers' attitudes and clamping down on gender discrimination.

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