ON 22 July 2012, Today reported that NTUC is, “recommending that working mums be given six months of paid maternity leave, with an option for flexi-work arrangements after that or a further six months of unpaid leave.”
The recommendations are in the right direction. In a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, to “examine the attitudes of Singaporeans towards the 2008 Maternity & Parenthood (M&P), maternity leave was cited as the third most attractive/appealing M&P measure.” 66% of respondents had also indicated that the extended maternity leave would influence “couples like themselves” to have children, coming in second after the enhanced baby bonus.
However, on 25 July 2012, Today reported that the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) had “cautioned against” increasing maternity leave, citing “operation disruptions and loss of productivity”.
In addition, the SNEF also said that, “Legislating more types of leave “creates an entitlement mentality which is an unhealthy work value… Compartmentalising leave benefits based on the different needs of employees would also restrict how companies manage employee needs and relations while adding to labour costs.”
Did SNEF Intentionally Lie?
SNEF had made an erroneous claim which is not backed up by either clear statistics or evidence.
SNEF had claimed that increasing maternity leave will result in a loss of productivity. This is not true.
The Maternity & Parenthood (M&P) Package was implemented from 2001. Productivity had continued to rise in the next 3 years after the package was implemented in 2001. Productivity had rose by between 5.7% and 7.4%.
The M&P Package was revised in again 2004 and 2008. Productivity was on a downward trend from 2004 to 2008 but but actually rose in 2010 and in fact, increased at the highest rate since 1992, by 10.7%.
If SNEF’s claim that increased maternity leave will result in a loss of productivity, there is no clear association or evidence to support it. Furthermore, not only did productivity rose at its highest in 2010, the productivity increases after the implementation of the M&P Package in 2001 was one of the highest in recent years.
Does SNEF Actually Knows the Real Reasons for Declining Productivity?
In fact, if SNEF had bothered to do up their reading, there is a paper which discusses clearly the reasons for the decline in productivity, “Singapore’s Declining Productivity Growth: An Exploratory Paper“, by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
The paper highlighted that in Singapore’s context, the following reasons could have contributed to the declining labour productivity:
- There was a over-hiring of workers during the last few years of “rapid economic growth” and so, “the Ministry (of Manpower) believes that such over hiring has contributed to the slide in Singapore’s labour productivity in 2007.”
- There was a shift in Singapore’s economy towards being a “knowledge economy” and there was a lapse in understanding how the productivity of a knowledge worker should be ” measured and improved on.” Also, the “hierarchical” organisational structures of Singapore companies prevented knowledge workers from working together to “promote innovation and creative solutions”, which reduced productivity.
- Also, whereas companies had been used to use technology to replace workers, “to mechanize manually performed and routine clerical tasks, and thereby to replace expensive labour with less expensive machines,” they couldn’t do so with knowledge workers. They had to learn that, “future investments in technology must add value to knowledge workers… (and) his work needs to be assimilated into the system design in a coherent way,” so as to thereby increase productivity.
- Also, companies were gradually warming up to the use of technology to improve worker productivity. However, “workers need time to learn and adopt the new technology. This means that despite increased investments, output may remain the same or even decline during this gestation period.”
- Specifically, the paper also mentions how, “worklife programs help professionals manage work-family conflict to reduce productivity loss due to distraction and absenteeism.”
SNEF’s thus simplistic assumption that increasing maternity leave will result in a loss of productivity is thus made based on ill-informed opinion and a lack of coherent thinking. This is downright embarrassing for an agency which is supposed to understand the workings of businesses and productivity.
If SNEF had also bothered to look even further afield for further understandings of productivity, they would find out how misinformed and mistaken they were in their now-embarrassing assumption.
FACT: Shorter Working Hours = Higher Productivity
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had, in fact, shown that countries with the shortest working hours were actually the most productivity.
The statistics clearly smack SNEF right in the face. A Singapore-based study had explained the reasons for declining productivity in Singapore – without attributing it to maternity leave, as SNEF would like us to think, and international statistics has also proven conclusively that shorter working hours do not hinder productivity growth, but in fact, might be a boon for it!
SNEF Has to Face the Facts or Face the Music
So, the question is why would SNEF come out with such an ill-informed opinion that increasing maternity leave would result in productivity loss? Because they feel like it? Because they want to exploit the workers? Because they do not think workers should be allowed work-life balance?
As of now, we have been able to establish the following facts:
- When maternity leave was offered and then increased for mothers, there is no clear association with increases or declines in productivity. In fact, in the following years after maternity leave was first implemented, productivity gains were one of the highest in recent times. The increase in productivity was also at its highest in 2010, after maternity leave was increased from 12 to 16 weeks.
- The decline in productivity was due to Singapore’s transition into a knowledge economy, and which was not matched by companies’ mindset change and accompanying actions to mitigate the transition. Companies were thus slow to respond to the needs of the economy and this resulted in a decline in productivity.
- It has also been shown that countries with the shortest working hours actually have the highest productivity.
If SNEF had done their due research, they would know that what they should champion isn’t being against an increase in maternity leave, but in championing for companies to move ahead with the times and to respond to the needs of the economy.
Not only that, if SNEF wants to be relevant, they would also champion for not only longer maternity (and parental leave) but also work-life balance, as these have shown to actually play a significant role in increasing productivity.
Overall Work-Life Balance and Autonomy: Importance in Singapore’s Knowledge Economy
Again, if we look at the statistics, the countries with high productivity are not only the ones with shorter working hours but are also the ones with the highest work-life balance, according to the OECD Better Life Index. Work-life balance is achieved where workers are able to maintain a balance of work hours, with time devoted to leisure and personal care.
Indeed, it has been shown that, “workers who feel they are free to make choices in the workplace, and be held accountable for them, are happier and more productive than employees who are more restricted.”
According to a research published in the “Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: Perspectives on the Psychology of Agency, Freedom, and Well-Being”:
Autonomy is especially likely to lead to better productivity when the work is complex or requires more creativity… When management makes decisions about how to organize work, they should always think about the effect on people’s autonomy.
This joins in very well with the paper by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy – In Singapore’s knowledge economy, it would be pertinent to ensure that workers have the autonomy and freedom to organise their work. It has also been shown by the research and statistics quoted above that shorter work hours and better work-life balance will also contribute to the overall increase in productivity.
Thus instead of issuing spurious statements and championing against policies which are necessary and vital not only to Singaporeans’ welfare and growth but also to Singapore’s economy, SNEF would do better to look at the wealth of research available and make specific recommendations which are evidence-informed and based on clear facts and statistics.
SNEF Should Adopt A More Progressive Role to Provide Holistic Recommendations
In fact, SNEF would render itself irrelevant if it keeps championing the government-lingo of “productivity” when it does not have the depth of explanation and analysis – as it has proven in this case – on how productivity works.
If SNEF wants to take a responsible and useful role in representing employers in Singapore, then based on the evidence cited in this article, SNEF would do well do to champion progressively for the following:
- Encourage companies to transition swiftly and responsively into a knowledge economy and respond by adequately using technology to complement workers’ roles.
- Advocate to the government for not only longer maternity, but parental leave, to allow for work-life balance for parents to have a conducive environment to grow and take care of their child, so that they would also be more likely to be more committed to a company which caters to their needs and welfare.
- Advocate to the government and companies for autonomous work practices which allow workers to be able to make more effective decisions on how they can respond to new challenges at the workplace. SNEF did try to redeem itself as it was reported that it, “also strongly supports part-time employment and flexible work arrangements.” But it needs to do more.
These ideals have been shown to have the effect of increasing productivity and is not only beneficial to employees, but also employers in the long term.
SNEF needs to take a long term approach in understanding maternity leave, and in fact, the aims of the overall Maternity and Parenthood Package, to understand its clear positive impact on productivity, employment and workers’ commitment to companies.
If SNEF can see the holistic picture of how respecting the rights of employees will only go further in benefitting employers, they will know that championing for comprehensive employee benefits which caters to their emotional and psychological growth will only bode well for the future of employers, and for SNEF, in the long run.
In summary for the first part of this article, I quote Gavin Jones’ paper, “Late marriage and low fertility in Singapore: the limits of policy”, who had this to say about Singapore’s low fertility rate:
But I would venture to say two things about East Asia generally, and Singapore in particular: (1) Greater gender equity in the household would help alleviate the stark choices facing women choosing between a career and family – or trying to juggle both; (2) Less single-minded attention to children’s educational performance, and more family-friendly workplaces, would help raise the birth rate, albeit perhaps at the sacrifice of some economic growth.
What this suggests is that for increasing maternity leave needs to be accompanied by a similar increase or offering for fathers. Mothers cannot be expected to be the only parent tasked with the arduous duty of taking care of the child.
At the same time, the fertility issue in Singapore cannot be seen as a matter of simply providing more incentives or offsetting work obligations. Singapore’s low fertility rate is grounded in complex structural issues, such as education, housing and the livability of Singapore.
To tackle the challenge of fertility head on, the government cannot be in denial or introduce policies which address issues superficially, without tackling the root cause. Otherwise, we will only keep coming face to face with this issue every few years (the M&P Package was introduced in 2001, then amended in 2004, and again in 2008), and then address it by a simplistic increment of incentives or the offsetting of work obligations.
A structural analysis and a revision of our governing principles and thinking is in order.
But Why Did SNEF Do It?
What astounds me though is, why SNEF would actually make such a baseless claim, it seems? I am quite certain that SNEF isn’t a fly-by-night agency that pretends to work in the interests of employers but have other agendas on hand. I do believe that they genuinely want to work for the interests of employers, and that also would mean ensuring the rights of employees are respected.
What surprised me was how firm and insistent SNEF was in deriding the longer maternity leave that NTUC had proposed. The derision felt almost – planned.
Obviously, the promotion of productivity in Singapore’s context is politically motivated. Productivity has been linked to wages, and now maternity leave, in a well-coordinated effort to focus Singaporeans’ attention towards thinking that productivity is the end all and be all of economic growth in Singapore.
This article has shown that it’s not. People’s autonomy and a healthy work-life balance would actually go further to contribute to Singapore in the long term.
Sure, among the Council Members on SNEF are some government-linked companies but would they have a part to play in this?
Just a few days before, NTUC had proposed a relatively progressive, even if mild, recommendation of increasing maternity leave for mothers. In a few days, SNEF came out and slammed the proposal. Both agencies took distinctly disparate viewpoints. In fact, on SNEF’s website, it is said that, “(SNEF) is thus the counterpart of the NTUC.”
The question, we have to ask ourselves is, why did NTUC suddenly take such a keen interest in the rights of employees in recent months? Why did SNEF suddenly take such an opposing role to create a “conflicting” perspective?
Who is orchestrating this charade?
Why did they, or rather, who, if anyone, made them pitch themselves against one another?
What is the outcome that we should expect? Would the government, at the end of this debate, come out to announce that they have heard the views of both employers and employees, in what could be construed by some as an orchestrated move, and have thus decided to reach a compromise by increasing maternity leave, but at a lower number than proposed by NTUC? Is this a play of words so that eventually, the government can achieve its goal through a clever play of dynamics between two organisations which have seemingly contrasting objectives but serve the overall purpose to pursue a government agenda?
The other question is – where are the real employees in this whole fracas? Have they, or have we, been effectively side-lined by this theatrical sideshow? Will they be heard, if ever, if their voices are drowned out by this colossal fight of the titans?
You Need to Let Your Views Be Heard
We are now in the midst of another screenplay which might leave us with consequences which are not favourable to our needs which we would have to live with.
YOUR VIEWS NEED TO BE HEARD.
In Singapore, the government-linked institutions, universities and mainstream newspapers conduct research, which are so-called “objective”, but which we cannot truly know if they are so, because of their links to the government. Sometimes, we question if the findings are indeed what is reported.
In America, there is the Pew Research Centre. On its website, it is said that, “The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The center conducts public opinion polling, demographic studies, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. It does not take positions on policy issues.”
We need to similarly develop a centralised platform in Singapore where we would be able to collect viewpoints and analysis objectively, of which the government won’t have monopoly over the information.
The online social interaction platform is a the most suitable platform in Singapore which can engage the views of thousands of Singaporeans online, in a hopefully non-partisan manner.
I have set up a Facebook page, which I have named as – Singapore’s Online Poll & Discussion Center.
On this page, polls of recent and important issues that concern Singaporeans can be conducted. Debates over issues and careful analysis can also be exchanged to enrich our thinking.
This page might or might not take off. But I would like to give it a try. I hope that with this page, we would be able to make ourselves heard and be able to truly understand what Singaporeans are thinking and what it is that we want the government to care about.
I have created a few polls based on this article. Please do go to the Facebook page here to take the polls. If you have any constructive viewpoints, please do also share your viewpoints on the page.