INCREASE IN PAID PARENTAL LEAVE
On 1 April 2015 the amount of paid parental leave was increased from 14 weeks to 16 weeks, with the intention for another two weeks to be added from 1 April 2016.
This increase was the current government’s response to the “26 for babies” campaign which for several years has been strongly advocating for 26 weeks paid parental leave. (1)
New Zealand lags well behind many countries in terms of the paid leave available for new parents. In the UK all female employees are entitled to 52 weeks of paid leave with the first six weeks paid at 90% of full pay and the remainder at a fixed rate. Sweden provides all working parents with 16 months of paid leave per child with the cost being shared between the employer and the state.
Australia was the most recent OECD country to introduce paid parental leave. In January 2011 a publicly funded scheme of 18 weeks of parental leave was introduced, at the federal minimum wage rather than a percentage of the primary caregiver’s salary. It can be shared between both parents. In January 2013 the paid parental leave scheme was expanded to include a new two-week payment for working dads, or partners, called Dad and Partner Pay.
The small increase in New Zealand’s paid parental leave scheme made the front page of “Panui,” the newsletter of the former Ministry of Women’s Affairs, now known as the Ministry for Women. Given that the Ministry has studiously ignored the needs of mothers, babies and their families for many years, this small article simply confirms how irrelevant to the majority of women the Ministry for Women has become. For years the Ministry has focused on women in the workforce. The articles in their newsletters are concentrated on women and paid work, getting women into male dominated trades, getting more women on boards, and promoting women as leaders as they climb the ladder of success. There is very little about women at the bottom of the paid workforce, and the disgraceful wages paid to women working in the caring industries. The issues around all the unpaid work women do, and the needs of new mothers and mothers returning to the workforce never rate a mention.
Previous to the latest issue of Panui, the only mention of paid parental leave was in the October 2013 issue which featured a small article entitled “Ideas shared at Auckland hui.” According to Jo Cribb, the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Women, “The aim of the hui was to share ideas about progress for women and to identify ongoing areas for working together.” Not surprisingly the first priority listed as being of concern to the representatives of the 20 organisations who attended the hui was paid parental leave, followed by pay equity. (2) While pay equity has featured in subsequent issues of the newsletter, until April 2015 there was no mention of paid parental leave.
The benefits of a much longer period of paid parental leave have been known for decades. Research shows that that there are considerable health, social and economic benefits:
A recent front-page headline in the Sunday Star Times referred to “commuter babies” spending 11+ hours in daycare with many daycare centres now opening for more than 11 hours. “One centre reports the “all-dayers” are often babies. Parents are asking for even longer hours to accommodate their commute and long working days, centres report.” (3) This is not healthy and is stressful for families.
It is long past time for the Ministry for Women to start focusing on the needs of mothers and on women at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
PAID PARENTAL LEAVE
The issue of the need to increase New Zealand’s woefully inadequate provisions for paid parental leave has been thrust back into the spotlight with the drawing from the members’ ballot of Labour MP Sue Moroney’s bill on extending paid parental leave. The Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months’ Paid Leave) Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament at the beginning of April, but before any discussions could begin Finance Minister Bill English announced that National would veto the bill.
National’s position in 2007
In 2007 the Families Commission proposed a three-stage increase from the current 14 week’s leave to six months, then nine months and finally a year by 2015. The National Party was occupying the opposition benches then and while it had voted against the introduction of paid parental leave when it was introduced in 2002, National’s spokesperson on labour, Kate Wilkinson explained that National had opposed it because it did not include self-employed people and casual workers. As the scheme was extended to include self-employed and casual workers in 2006 (and the National Party did indeed support this move), National was now inclined to support the proposal to increase both the period of leave and the rates of pay, Ms Wilkinson said.
Judith Collins, National’s spokesperson on family affairs, said she was also supportive of the need for an increase in paid parental leave and was quoted as saying “As a working woman myself, I could seriously have done with paid parental leave when I had a little child.” (1)
Although National’s current position was unknown when Sue Moroney’s bill was introduced to Parliament, it was expected that it would have the support of other opposition parties, including the Maori Party, the Greens, and United Future leader Peter Dunne.
As New Zealand First leader Winston Peters pointed out, no-one had any accurate analysis of the cost. “The Government keeps crying poor and cutting social services yet it can pour billions into failed finance companies for its mates so perhaps a compromise can be reached,” he said.
Bill English is claiming that the current cost of paid parental leave is $150 million and the proposed extension would cost a further $150 million a year. However, as the NZ Education Institute has pointed out his estimate does not factor in the resulting reduction in subsidies to early childhood education services. (2)
It also does not take into account the financial, social, physical and emotional benefits that extending paid parental leave would give babies, children, and their families, and the flow-on positive effects to the community.
The benefits of attachment
Parents need time at home to form strong, healthy, loving bonds with their babies, and to adjust to the major changes in their own relationship that occur when a baby arrives. When this does not happen the costs to society are considerable.
Both the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life.
Such recommendations are based on research and studies that continue to show that six months of exclusive breastfeeding has proven health benefits, such as increased immunity to infectious diseases, lower rates of asthma, reduced incidence of hospitalisation, higher IQs, decreased risk of obesity, better dental health, etc. In itself this represents a considerable saving to our health system, with the other less tangible but just as important emotional and psychological benefits providing additional arguments for increasing paid parental leave.
Over the past decades successive New Zealand governments have introduced policies and legislation that have placed the needs of the workforce over and above the needs of families with young children. This despite the increasing body of evidence that shows the first three years of a child’s life is crucial in determining their future. The failure to form secure attachments during the first few years of life can have a negative impact on behaviour not only in later childhood but throughout life. The resulting costs to the health, education and justice sectors of children who have not had their needs met are well known and irrefutable.
The cost of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to societies that fail to support parents during the vulnerable early years of a child’s life is demonstrated very clearly in our health statistics, in the challenges and failures faced by our education system, the rising levels of violence in the young in our society, and is a significant factor behind the production of Paula Bennett’s Green Paper on Vulnerable Children. Many submissions on The Green Paper included the need to significantly increase the amount of paid parental leave as one of a raft of measures that need to be implemented to address the issue of child abuse.
While the costs of dealing with the harm resulting from the current environment are difficult to quantify and put an exact figure on, they would definitely make $150 million look like a drop in the bucket. Prevention is much cheaper and kinder than our current half-hearted and ineffectual attempts at dealing with the results of what government policies are doing to struggling families.
The task now is to somehow convince Bill English and John Key that the cost of not introducing six months of paid parental leave now, and increasing it to 12 months over the next few years, will far exceed the figures that the parties in Parliament are currently plucking out of thin air.
1. “Parties agree on parental break for a year.” NZ Herald. 29 August 2007.
2. “Price tag of extended paid leave in dispute.” NZ Herald. 13 April 2012.