Helena Storm, consul general of Sweden in Hong Kong and Macau, doesn’t have to go very far to explain what it is like to live in her country.
She takes herself as an example.
Storm is a mother of two. By law, she and her husband share up to 660 days of paid parental leave for raising their twin daughter and son.
That’s more than a year of no work for each of them.
Her husband, a civil engineer, has decided to quit his job to write a philosophical novel.
A house-husband you may call him, but they have a maid to help with the household chores.
So that makes the consul general the sole breadwinner of the family.
That, in a capsule, is how it’s like to live in Sweden, a so-called welfare state with a high level of gender equality.
The Scandinavian country has one of the world’s highest representations of women in parliament. At present, 12 of the 24 government ministers are women.
You may say Sweden is family-friendly. Couples are encouraged to have children, and to care for them.
Parents or step-parents are entitled to share 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted.
It could stretch to 660 days when the parents are expecting twins.
Storm says the law enables Swedish women to pursue their career as well as take care of their family.
It is also flexible: parents can take the leave anytime until their child turns eight.
In her case, Storm completely took off from work in the first year of parenthood, then worked no more than two and a half days per week after that.
Her husband, meanwhile, took eight months’ leave as well.
It’s paid leave, by the way.
“For 390 days, parents are entitled to nearly 80 percent of their pay, up to a maximum of around HK$35,000 per month. The remaining 90 days are paid at a flat daily rate of 180 Swedish kronor (US$21.9, HK$170),” Storm explains.
The state foots the bill, although many employers top up the pay so that parents can get as much as 90 percent of their pay.
Those who are unemployed are also entitled to state subsidy when they become parents.
You might think Swedish bosses are not too happy about this arrangement.
But it’s a move that Swedes have agreed on. Besides, it’s the law.
In fact, it’s illegal for employers to ask job applicants if they are pregnant or plan to conceive a child, or not allow an employee to take parental leave.
At the Swedish consulate office in Hong Kong, staff enjoy 28 days of annual leave, which doesn’t include yet the number of statutory holidays in the city.
In Sweden, the minimum number of annual leave days is 25, but that could go up depending on negotiations between the employer and the employee.
Asked for her views on the work environment in Hong Kong, Storm – diplomatically – says Hongkongers are “very loyal”, citing a recent news report that employees in the city work a world-beating 50.11 hours a week.
In Sweden, by comparison, work should not be more than 40 hours a week, and 30 hours a week is the norm, excluding the lunch break.
Probably the only edge Hongkongers can take pride in is that they are given an hour for lunch, while the Swedes only have 30 minutes.
That’s because Swedish workers observe fika, a compulsory break for coffee and cake that takes place at around 10 a.m.
Employees from various departments of the company use the break to socialize and discuss corporate or social matters as they enjoy their coffee and cakes.
Many important business decisions are made during fika, Storm notes.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 21.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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