19 May 2019
Hong Kong government is facing growing calls to rethink its rules on maternity leave to help women cope with pregnancy-related issues better. Photo: Reuters
Hong Kong government is facing growing calls to rethink its rules on maternity leave to help women cope with pregnancy-related issues better. Photo: Reuters

Why extending statutory maternity leave will be win-win for all

As times have changed, so has the role of women in society.

In the past, most women would become full-time housewives once they got married and had children. But now, as women have become increasingly well-educated, many of them tend to return to the workforce after marriage.

A lot of them are even fulfilling the dual roles of working women and mothers simultaneously.

For working women who are pregnant, things could be somewhat tough, as they have to deal with their daily work routine as well cope with the changes in their bodies as a result of pregnancy.

As compared to white-collar workers, pregnant nurses who still have to go to work as usual are facing a much bigger challenge, given the highly stressful working environment in hospitals.

Worse still, many pregnant nurses have to constantly work shifts and even overtime as our public hospitals have remained severely understaffed over the years, thereby taking a heavy toll on the health of both the pregnant nurses and their unborn children.

As a result, it is not uncommon for pregnant nurses or healthcare workers to have miscarriages or even stillbirths.

For example, two years ago, a tragedy took place when a pregnant nurse suddenly suffered a stroke and collapsed when she was on the night shift.

After that incident, the Hospital Authority (HA) immediately reviewed its policy on staff schedules and announced that nurses who are 32 weeks or more into their pregnancy would be exempt from working night shifts.

However, as some frontline healthcare workers have told me, in reality the new exemption policy is not always properly enforced in public hospitals due to the constant changes in staff availability and demand for service.

Back in 2012, I had urged the HA to exempt nurses who are 28 weeks into their pregnancy from night shifts in order to allow them sufficient time to rest.

Although the HA has already adopted the 32-week exemption measure, my colleagues in the healthcare sector and I will continue to push for the extension of that exemption to nurses who are 28 weeks pregnant, and a substantial increase in manpower in public hospitals.

Under the existing law, pregnant employees are only entitled to 10 weeks of statutory maternity leave, which are still 4 weeks short compared to the requirement laid down in the Maternity Protection Convention drafted by the International Labor Organization in 2000.

I strongly believe that extending the maternity leave for pregnant employees would benefit working women and their newborn babies, as well as the employers.

It is because by doing so it can allow new working mothers more time to recover after they have given birth so that they can return to work in a better shape.

Also, extending the duration of maternity leave can substantially reduce the risk of postpartum depression or anxiety.

Meanwhile, numerous studies have indicated that having to return to work is a major reason behind many new mothers’ decision to stop breastfeeding their babies.

Studies have also shown that the length of maternity leave often constitutes an important factor for working parents in determining whether their newborns would be breastfed or formula-fed.

As we all know, there are a lot of health benefits with breastfeeding as far as both mothers and babies are concerned. Therefore, extending the statutory maternity leave can not only facilitate new mothers’ recovery, it can also encourage them to breastfeed their newborns.

In her last Policy Address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised that the administration would study the issue seriously.

Given that, I urge the CE to raise the current statutory maternity leave from 10 weeks to 14 weeks.

I strongly believe that a family-friendly workplace will not only benefit employees and foster work-family balance, it will also help employers, because it can lead to reduced staff turnover.

I hope the HA and the government will get down to business promptly and enforce night shifts exemption for 28-weeks pregnant nurses and extend the statutory maternity leave from 10 weeks to 14 weeks as soon as possible.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 26

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong

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