It’s a double-edged sword

PETALING JAYA: The Employment Act, which now allows for 98 days of maternity leave, has turned out to be a double-edged sword for women in the job market.

“The government is assisting women (by extending the maternity leave). Yet, this may lead to other consequences for women, such as not being given promotion chances or being hired,” said Malaysian Women’s Development Organisation president Ng Geok Chee.

She said it had overlooked two ways to help them avoid workplace discrimination as some employers sought to reduce their recruitment of women, she said.

Ng suggested that employers be given subsidies or tax relief to ease their worries or burden in employing women who might need to take maternity leave.

This, she said, had been done in several countries.

Employers, she said, should be mindful that it would be unfair to women if the increased maternity leave ended up with them being unable to find work.

Under amendments to the Act, which took effect from January, maternity leave has been extended from 60 days to 98 days.

Married men are granted a seven-day paternity leave.

Women’s Aid Organisation advocacy director Abinaya Mohan cited a survey which showed that there was a 41% shift to hiring men following the amendments.

“This is a worrying trajectory for Malaysia as a whole as it has the opposite effect of the maternity leave of 98 days, which was intended to improve gender equality laws in tandem with international labour standards,” she said.

However, she also said it was essential to acknowledge the burden of operational cost that is placed upon employers.

“Secondly, it is that the hiring of women and women’s health or well-being is still not a priority consideration in the workforce.

“To be clear, extended maternity leave is also an added economic pressure for SMEs, many of which are led by women and are mainly women-run. You can imagine that it may exacerbate biases and disparity.

“It would also poorly impact the success of women-led women-driven businesses,” Abinaya added.

She said Malaysian women should not face a “maternity penalty”.

“There must be some support from the government-paid maternity benefit scheme to help promote reinvestment in women and prevent job seeker discrimination.

“We hope some assistance will be provided to employers and businesses/organisations as the discrimination will prove a setback to gender equality,” she added.

SME Association of Malaysia president Ding Hong Sing said the government had presented a new challenge to SMEs by upping the previous 60-day allocation to 98 days.

“Who can take over the management of a department if the head of that department goes on maternity leave for 98 days?

“Long holidays are already a significant burden for a micro-business with only five employees,” he said.

In fact, Ding said some women were not forthright when asked about their long-term plans.

He spoke about some job applicants who hid their pregnancy news.

“But within two months after they start work, they’re already five to six months pregnant. While we obey the law and cannot terminate pregnant women, we must also take care of the supply chain and ensure business continuity,” he said.

In the case of Singapore, Ding said it implemented a government-paid maternity leave, where employers can be reimbursed for up to 38 days of maternity leave granted to their personnel.

Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia president Tan Sri Low Kian Chuan agreed that Malaysia should take a leaf from Singapore in sharing the burden with employers.

“This is to mitigate the cost impact to employers,” he said.

Malay Chamber of Commerce Malaysia deputy president Norsyahrin Hamidon indicated that companies are shifting to a higher male-to-female ratio as they seek to mitigate the impact of longer maternity leave.

“Yes, the employer could hire a replacement or temp to cover the person going on maternity leave.

“Yet, we also seek the government’s justification on why it is implementing a new maternity leave policy at this moment of recovery,” she said.

She urged the government to provide some assistance to employers for providing the 98 days of maternity leave.

JobStreet Malaysia operations director Ashwin Jeyapalasingam said the platform always emphasised the importance of fair hiring practices.

“We have put checks and filters on our platform to help us identify job listings with discriminatory words, including gender bias descriptions. Ads containing such keywords will automatically be flagged and banned from going through,” he said.

However, Ashwin said employers could request exceptions; for example, a position for a lingerie salesperson would require female applicants.

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