How far is Hong Kong from family-friendly?

Many working parents have only a small wish – to have work-life-balance, instead of being torn apart. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in her Policy Address the extension of maternity and paternity leaves in the current Employment Ordinance. But does it mean, as the government said, that it values family-friendliness? Hongkongers, don’t be a frog in a well! We can be even family-friendlier. This issue of the CTU E-Newsletter will introduce the Government’s amendments on the policies, and compare how other countries achieve family-friendly with examples. We have invited two employees from big enterprises to share their experiences in our interviews. Hong Kong is such a wealthy and prosperous international city, but why is it so difficult for its citizens to spend time with their families?

Big enterprises falling behind in family-friendly policies, first-time father applies for unpaid leave to look after family

Wallace, a former member of Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association Executive Committee, became a father last August when his wife gave birth to their baby girl Hei Shun by caesarean, weighing slightly more than 6 pounds.

As a first-time dad, Wallace was excited but also nervous. To feed, to bathe, to change diaper for the baby were all new challenges that needs to overcome. Although they’ve hired a baby-sitter, there were still many challenges. 

His wife had to stay 4 more nights in the hospital due to her caesarean section, plus her body had always been quite weak, she needed more time to recover. The baby kept looking yellow on her face for the first month, so she had to go to the hospital to test her jaundice index every few days. Wallace held the baby in his arms all these times.

Like many other first-time mothers, Wallace’s wife had low milk supply due to heavy workload of taking care of the newly born baby and lack of sleep. Later she even had eczema on her skin. After consulting the Chinese doctor, she was suggested not to breastfeed. This, together with baby Hei Shun’s jaundice symptoms, made her emotional during that period.

Since the Employment Ordinance only grants three days of paternity leave, Wallace had no choice but to apply for one month of unpaid leave in order to stay home and take care of his wife and daughter. After resuming his duties, he missed his family and worried about them. But both leaves have come to an end, there were no other options.

His wife works in a bank and has better welfares. With her 14 weeks of maternity leave, plus her annual leaves, she resumed her duties only in mid December. But when they both went back to work, they had to hire a foreign domestic helper to take care of their daughter.

Since his employer did not adopt family-friendly policy, Wallace could only swap his flights with colleagues so that he could return on the same day. Sometimes he leaves early and comes home late, but insists on taking bath for his daughter.

When asked if he would have a second child, Wallace said, apart from the insufficient living space, there was also lack of family-friendly policy at his workplace. These made him doubt if he could take good care of the family as a husband and as a father.  

 

Amendment of Paternity Leave, pay attention if you plan to have children

 

Maternity leave: Suggested to increase from 10 weeks to 14 weeks.

Paternity Leave: Suggested to increase from 3 days to 5 days.

Arrangement: Extra maternity wage for 4 weeks (80% of full wage), with maximum of HKD 50,000 per month, (4/5 salary is i.e. 36,822), enterprises will be subsidised by the Government.

Arrangement: 5 days of paternity leave with 80% of salary.

Date of implementation: Government bill is planned to be submitted to the

Legislative Council in 2019, once passed will be implemented within 2020.

Date of implementation: Government bill has passed in the Legislative Council in October 2018, and is implemented at 18th January 2019.

Eligibility: Employed 40 weeks before taking the maternity leave; inform the employer in written form once detected pregnancy and will be protected by the bill. Dismissal will be illegal.

Eligibility: Employed 40 weeks before taking the paternity leave, and inform the employer 3 months prior to the birth of the infant(s). Employees need to provide with birth certificate(s) to prove his status of the father of the newly born infant(s). (There is no legal provision restricting the father of the baby to have marriage with the mother.)

Suggestion of HKCTU: Increase maternity leave to 14 days in order to meet the standard of International Labour Organisation conventions; But the arrangement of 80% of the original salary is still a form of penalty to the employee. The upper limit of salary rate, set by the Government, for 4 extra weeks makes a “double loss” for medium-high income employees.

Suggestion of HKCTU: 5 days of paternity leave is far from enough for a father to carry out his responsibilities. 80% of salary puts another burden on his shoulder. HKCTU suggests the increase of the leaves to 2 weeks with full salary.

 

Zero protection to pregnant contract workers, employers are legal to dismiss

While it’s great news to hear the extension of maternity leave by the Government, do you know you could lose your job if you were a pregnant contract worker? The case of a pregnant worker, who earlier sought help by the HKCTU, reflects the flaws in the Employment Ordinance.

Ms Chow was employed at China National Travel Service Group Corporation for over 10 years and has been employed with a 1-year contract. The contract periods range from January to December. Ms Chow was found pregnant in March 2017 and informed her employer immediately of her estimated date of delivery, which would be 21 November. She continued her work during pregnancy and had regular checks just like any other pregnant women, and there was no discontent from her company and manager. On 8 November, Ms Chow felt unwell and was asked to stay in the hospital by a doctor for further medical investigations. Chow informed her company immediately and took leave. However, the next day she received a message from the company, informing her that her work contract will not be extended. She was told later that her company did not extend her contract because of “reduction of business”.

Nevertheless, the company only shut down one of its warehouses and had sacked 2 security guards in 2018. It made no sense to dismiss Chow, who had been promoted as the logistics general manager in March 2017. With the assistance of HKCTU, Chow complained her case to the Equal Opportunity Commission. During the investigation, her company accused her of “dissatisfactory performance” that she \ “looked at her cell phone during meetings”.

According to the current Employment Ordinance, dismissal of employees after their informing of pregnancy is illegal and can be sentence to pay as much as HKD 150,000 of compensation. However, not extending contracts during pregnancy will not be deemed as “illegal dismissal”. Employers only have to pay the salary for the maternity leave as compensation and “legally” sack pregnant employees. As precarious employment is becoming common nowadays, and contract workers are growing in large numbers. If Carrie Lam really cares about women’s rights, she would need to mend the flaws in the legal provisions without delay.

 

No more paper talks on policies, business sector should know better of international trend

 “When a female employee is having maternity leave, she is not able to work, and contributes nothing to the company, how should the company have extra resources to pay her?” When SHIH Wing Ching, Hong Kong tycoon, spoke of this fallacy, he probably didn’t think of the criticism he would face on the internet.

Hong Kong is facing an aging challenge and low birth rate. The Government estimated that the labour force would peak at 3.65 million people this year, and will subsequently drop slowly. Lukewarm employers normally aim for only one thing – import more foreign labours. Such lack of foresight is the obstacle to seeing how the world is moving towards family-friendly policies, releasing the female workforce and increasing birth rates.

A Legislative Counci study from last year cited a report of the OECD, pointing out that its Member States’ employment rates and birth rates are directly proportional. (See Figure 1) One of the reasons to this is that “working environment supports fertility and promotes family-friendly policies”. The study points out clearly, that many governments use the promotion of family-friendly policies to tackle the deceleration of population growth and aging trends, hoping to increase the female workforce participation rate. In this sense, Hong Kong is far behind. (See Figure 2)

Figure 1: Birth rate and female labour force participation rate in 2016

 

Birth rate

Female labour force participation rate

Hong Kong

1.21

50.0%

UK

1.82*

73.2%

Sweden

1.85

69.9%

Canada

1.60

61.3%

USA

1.84*

56.8%

*Figures in 2015

 

Figure 2: A study of Legislative Council compared 6 family-friendly policies with neighbouring regions that have similar economic status, and shows that Hong Kong has fallen behind.

 

Hong Kong

Singapore

South Korea

Taiwan

Japan

Maternity Leave

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Paternity Leave

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Parental Leave (Both father and mother are eligible)

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Other baby-related leaves

No

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Legal protection of flexible work arrangement

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Legal protection of milk collection break during work hours

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

If you’re lamenting and thinking “I don’t wanna be Hongkonger next life!”, it’s way too pessimistic. Instead, we can say no to falling behind and air our voices proactively to urge the Government and businesses to catch up with the international trend. We can do more for our children.