Accountant Maria T, 34, recently returned to work after her maternity leave. "While there has been talk of setting up a creche (nursery for babies and young children to be cared for during the working day) at my office, it has yet to be implemented. I was told it's due to lack of resources, namely funds, space and the time to renovate the place to be 'child-friendly' and hiring the suitable manpower," she said.
Sadly, this is the case for many companies where nursing mothers are encouraged to return to work but there aren't adequate facilities provided to facilitate this return to the office
The measures to lure women back into the workforce in Budget 2023 have been met with lukewarm responses as women's rights advocates said "more needs to be done" to tackle the barriers women face.
"If we want to encourage women to return to work, there are more important and crucial services needed, such as childcare in the workplace, flexible time or work-from-home options, breast-pump rooms, and others," said Society for Equality, Respect and Trust for All Sabah (Serata) vice president Robert Hii.
Hii pointed out that "the main reason women drop out of the workforce is the lack of support services; it's not always about the money".
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced that in order to encourage women to return to work, Socso would amend its Act to give grants equivalent to 80% of the insured worker's salary. Some 130,000 women who return to work after giving birth will benefit from this grant, which involves a total of RM 290mil.
All Women's Action Society (AWAM) senior programme manager Lilian Kok said: "While this is welcoming and definitely a move that will push the hands of employers, we also need to consider other elements which will encourage returning women, such as availability of childcare services (or subsidy avenues) and the cost implications of providing flexible work hours for them."
Abinaya Dhivya Mohan, Women's Aid Organisation advocacy director, said incentives for employers are key, even in supporting the recent maternity leave extensions, so this is a step forward.
"The building of taskas and also programmes to address the issue of unregistered childcare centres is an important progress. But we hope that the government looks into unregistered childcare centres within communities that will then become accessible and secure for parents to send their children too," she added.
According to Sisters in Islam communications officer Aleza Othman, "the grant for women who return to work is only a temporary solution to a far greater issue".
"While the amount per person is not insignificant (more or less RM2,230 per person), this is just a temporary solution, and there are many problems and challenges that women experience in getting back into the workforce, including structural as well as cultural barriers.
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National Association of Human Resources Malaysia president Zarina Ismail pointed out that after 98 days of maternity leave, women returning to work must have suitable positions to fill.
"Will their positions still be there for them? Also, we have practised working from home since the pandemic, and it has been successful, so we can also give women the opportunity to choose flexible working hours," she said.
Association of Employment Agencies Malaysia vice-president Suresh Tan said the cost of daycare for children was one that weighed heavily on whether women returned to the workforce.
"At the end of the day, most women end up being stretched with work, rushing to pick up kids, and taking care of their home. Will the Socso grant alleviate these issues? Their decision to work will be about whether they have the support and ability to balance all this out," said Tan.
Women's Centre for Change (WCC) Penang programme director Karen Lai questioned if the Socso incentive would be a one-off payment only.
"If so, while it is helpful, I can't see it going a long way towards alleviating the costs of childcare, which will continue to stretch on for years after birth," she highlighted.