Business

Paternity in the state sector

By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya

Sri Lanka, as a nation, reveres motherhood, and while this is admirable on the surface, the flipside is that this reverence comes with many steep expectations of mothers. One such expectation is that following childbirth, the mother is primarily responsible for raising the child in the first few years, while the father is entrusted with the responsibility of being the sole breadwinner.

However, in a country where women make up over 50% of the population and an economy which is heavily dependent on its female labour force, how fair and realistic are these traditional expectations of motherhood?

This issue is definitely not unique to Sri Lanka. However, the developed world has made some progress in this matter where they have introduced measures to increase the involvement of fathers in the lives of their children. Chief among these is paternity leave, which gives fathers both an opportunity and an obligation to be more present in their young children’s lives.

A report titled “Fathers’ Leave, Fathers’ Involvement and Child Development: Are They Related?”, published in 2013 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that parental leave policies can contribute to encouraging fathers to participate in childcare-related tasks if they are well-designed to be attractive to working parents.

The report also shows that a father’s involvement was associated with some positive cognitive outcomes. For instance: “The clearest and strongest association was observed in the United Kingdom, where children with highly involved fathers were faring better in terms of cognitive outcomes than children with less involved fathers.”

This will be the first in a two-part series which will explore the current availability of paternity leave in Sri Lanka and whether it makes economic sense in a country with an abundance of holidays and a low GDP growth rate. The second part of the series will look at the private sector labour policies, but we will start this week by focusing on the state sector.

International Labour Organisation

Discussions of paternity leave often centre International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards. However, according to the Commissioner General of Labour R.P.A. Wimalaweera, there are no ILO conventions focused entirely on paternity leave.

“There are a few ILO conventions in relation to maternity leave, but the ILO always encourages granting paternity leave as well,” he said. What is important to note is that not all ILO conventions are binding. “If a country has not ratified such conventions, that country is not legally bound to implement those provisions,” Wimalaweera said.

The Sri Lankan picture

In Sri Lanka, paternity leave for the state sector is limited to three days. According to Public Administration Circular 03/2006: “A permanent, temporary, casual, or trainee Public Officer is entitled to a period of three working days leave in the occasion of the birth of a child to his wife.”

The circular also states that this leave must be taken within three months from the date of birth of the child.

In June, 2018, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) made a proposal in Parliament requesting that leave be granted for fathers during childbirth. However, since then, the JVP hasn’t taken up the issue. According to JVP Central Committee member Wasantha Samarasinghe: “Workers unions and the ILO have spoken about this, but it’s the Commissioner General of Labour who needs to be questioned about the situation regarding implementation in Sri Lanka, and about what stage they are at now.”

The Ceylon Bank Employees Union (CBEU) too made requests for a paternity leave policy, but haven’t put much effort into it, CBEU President Channa Dissanayake said. Dissanayake also said that to his knowledge, the proposal covered distance through state ministries. “I feel it will be established as a policy,” he said.

According to the Labour Ministry, however, no such steps are being taken. Chief Legal Officer/Commissioner of Labour (Enforcement) Milanga Weerakkody said that Cabinet is yet to consider such a policy.

He explained that while workers unions have requested that paternity leave should be established for the private sector too, nothing has been done to enforce such provisions.
He also added: “Currently, there are no discussions regarding extending the number of days given to the state sector.”

However, there could soon be more focus on paternity leave. “There are a number of acts that cover the labour force, and there are certain inconsistencies between them,” Weerakkody explained.

“There is a need to bring all of these acts together and have one law, and a dialogue has already begun in Parliament. With the Cabinet’s approval, necessary discussions are taking place with relevant stakeholders. The subject of paternity leave has also been brought up with ideas being presented.”

Maternity leave

Three days of paternity leave doesn’t seem like much in comparison to maternity leave in Sri Lanka, which is substantial. However, there used to be some confusion regarding this area less than a year ago.

The Maternity Benefits Act stated that a working woman can take upto, “12 weeks, that is to say two weeks upto and including the day of her confinement and 10 weeks immediately following that day”.

However, the Shop and Office Employees Act stipulated 84 days of maternity leave. There were other inconsistencies between the two Acts as well, such as nursing time. However, since 18 June, 2018, these differences were eliminated with the Shop and Office Employees (Regulation of Employment and Remuneration) (Amendment) Act No. 14 of 2018, and Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act No. 15 of 2018.

How would a new policy on paternity leave compare to maternity leave? According to Dissanayake, paternity leave would only amount to five to seven days. “There is no need to give as many days as maternity leave.

The purpose of paternity leave is so a father’s support is given from the time the mother is hospitalised to when the child is brought home and settles in,” he said.

Responsibility

Sri Lanka Railways is a state entity which functions under the Transport Ministry and has a workforce which is overwhelmingly male due to the nature of the work including the working hours.

Speaking about parental responsibilities during childbirth, Sri Lanka Railways Deputy Operating Superintendent Vajira Saman Polwaththage said: “When it comes to railway services, women hold a lot of responsibility due to the nature of their husband’s job. Besides clerical jobs, other jobs require them to be away from their homes for a couple of days. So at least during the time of childbirth, if the husband can be there for his wife, it can strengthen family ties and be beneficial to the country too.”

As a state entity, Public Administration Circular 03/2006 is applicable to Sri Lanka Railways employees. Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT), on the other hand, is a mix between state and private institute. It is a public limited company (PLC) with the two main shareholders being the Government of Sri Lanka (through the Secretary to the Treasury) and Global Telecommunication Holdings (GTH) NV.

SLT Chief Human Resource Officer Indrani Hissalle spoke about increased responsibility within a family, and said: “The problem with some of these men is that they aren’t looking after the family, and that affects the child’s development.”

Internationally

US, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), grants upto 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for reasons including, “for the birth and care of the new-born child of an employee”.

In Australia, employees are entitled to 12 months of unpaid parental leave, and can also request an additional 12 months of leave.

Canada offers standard parental benefits that can be paid for a maximum of 35 weeks and must be claimed within a 52-week period (12 months) after the week the child is born or placed for the purpose of adoption.

In a press release dated 13 June, 2018, UNICEF reported: “Almost two-thirds of the world’s children under one year old – nearly 90 million – live in countries where their fathers are not entitled by law to a single day of paid paternity leave.” According to the release, 92 countries don’t have national policies in place.

While UNICEF listed India as one of the countries that doesn’t currently have a policy on paternity leave, it also mentioned the Paternity Benefit Bill proposed by Indian officials. If the Bill is passed, fathers could be allowed up to three months of paid paternity leave.

Looking at other neighbouring countries, Pakistan too, allows for paternity leave, and the Times of Islamabad reported on 10 January: “Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari has approved paternity leave up to 10 days.”

However, quoting Federal Secretary of Minister of Human Rights Javeria Aga, Pakistani newspaper The News reported: “Paid paternity leave for a new father is not usually provided under the labour legislation for the private sector.”

According to wageindicator.org, no provision for paternity leave benefits is identified in Bangladesh’s Labour Act 2006. “However, new fathers may use the casual leave provision of 10 days when a child is born,” the website states.

Practicality

While some countries have already implemented such provisions and others are in the process of implementing them, there is also a need to look at the practicality of implementing a paternity leave policy. This is similar to what Wimalaweera said: “When it comes to the implementation of such provisions, we have to look at the consequences that will arise in the future.”

“If you look at it from an economical point of view, I see a huge impact on third-world countries like ours. We ask for paternity leave and it looks good in developed countries, but with our reality, to what extent can our economy bear this?” Weerakkody questioned.

When it comes to the state sector, organisations are required to approve paternity leave. “If it isn’t given, then the unions will take it up. The workers have a right to it,” Polwaththage said, when asked if there were any issues with granting paternity leave to Sri Lanka Railways employees.

However, he did explain that it wasn’t an easy task to grant leave.

Employer’s point of view

It is thus also important to look at how a paternity leave policy will affect companies or employers. According to Polwaththage, because the railway service is a 24-hour service, they work according to a roster, meaning that an employee can’t end his shift until whoever is on duty next arrives.

“We have a small staff and there are times when those on shift have to work for three or four days at a stretch. In such instances, we face difficulties when people want to take leave. As per the circular, we are obliged to approve their paternity leave. However, there are certain difficulties that we face as an organisation with continuing our services,” he explained.

The situation is no different at SLT, although paternity leave is currently not granted. According to Hissalle, if a paternity leave policy is implemented, there could be a negative effect with field staff, which comprises 100% of male employees.

“If they go on leave, we will have a problem because we have an optimum number of employees for that area. But normally, whatever the Government introduces, from a labour side, it will be implemented,” she explained.

Difficulties faced by women

Dissanayake shed light on another pressing issue with regards to employment, where young women face difficulties when seeking employment due to the fact that companies don’t want to employ anyone who may apply for maternity leave soon.

“To my knowledge, this happens far less in government institutes, but in the private sector, when it comes to recruitment, there is certain reluctance when recruiting women,” he said.

“So from the company’s point of view, they don’t see childbirth or taking care of children as a company problem. In a profit-motivated culture, motherhood is given little prominence,” Dissanayake added. He also said that the lack of childcare facilities in the country also contributes to this, as mothers have to take leave to attend to their child’s needs.

Given this attitude towards childcare, Dissanayake said he doubted if companies would be willing to give paternity leave too. “After making a huge investment, people want to make a net profit,” he said, explaining that paternity leave would add to the number of holidays already given in the country.

“Considering discussions at international conferences, there seems to be a belief that there are too many holidays in our country. So there is a question, especially among the private sector, of whether the country can develop when so many holidays are given.”

He was quick to explain that he did not mean that the number of holidays should be reduced but that these factors “need to be considered when it comes to the sustenance of a company”.

Implementation

There is also the matter of the culture in this country, where women are held responsible for childcare. Will a paternity leave policy change this and make fathers take on more responsibilities?

Dissanayake doubted this change would take place overnight and that, if at all, it would be a very gradual change in social norms and social roles.

“The way it is, when a child is born, it is solely the mother’s responsibility. In our culture, there is a belief that giving birth, taking care of a child, and everything related to the upbringing of a child should be taken care of by the mother,” he explained.

Solutions

Despite expecting rather negative impacts on introduction of a paternity leave policy, the Labour Ministry did seem to have solutions.

According to ILO Convention 103: “An employer shall not be individually liable for the direct cost of any such monetary benefit to a woman employed by him or her without that employer’s specific agreement.”

However, Weerakkody said: “In our country, if paternity leave is introduced in the private sector, it will be completely borne by the employer. In the state sector, the cost is borne by the government, which is the citizens’ money.”

Wimalaweera, however, suggested a solution to this. “It is the responsibility of the Government to pay by way of an insurance or tax. I strongly believe that there should be a tax charged from everybody – maybe a small percentage or amount – which should be pooled to pay for the leave.”

If this is done, he believes: “The burden on private sector employers can be eliminated in terms of cost, so they will recruit more people.”

How does the private sector feel about paternity leave? We’ll find out in the second part of this series, where a number of private companies in Sri Lanka will be sharing their views on the implementation of paternity leave in Sri Lanka.