The low birth rate is one of those problems all Singaporeans have accepted will never be solved. The Baby Bonus has been a spectacular failure, and who’s surprised?
And now visiting Harvard sociologist has said what everybody already knew—family friendly workplaces are essential in growing the birthrate. Long working hours, inflexible bosses and fathers not being involved enough were the three things she said would work against a healthier birth rate—and unfortunately, these are also things that describe the typical Singapore workplace to a tee.
In order to make Singapore workplaces truly family-friendly, strong signals must be sent out to the private sector. Here’s what should done if the government is truly committed to growing the birth rate.
Make it compulsory for employers to display a basic level of family-friendliness and employee welfare
When the civil service announced earlier this year that it would be piloting a scheme offering civil servants more four more weeks of unpaid infant care leave, that seemed like a step in the right direction. Except that days after the announcement was made, another news report was published to say that the private sector is unlikely to follow suit.
Now, it’s no secret that Singapore has always tried to create a business-friendly environment. This means that employment laws tend to favour the employer, and employees have far fewer rights than in other developed economies.
Okay, we can understand the rationale that they don’t want to turn Singapore into some European welfare state where employees strike at the slightest thing. But there is a basic level of humane treatment that it would be shameful for a so-called developed country to not accord to its employees.
As reluctant as the government is to compel businesses to offer additional rights to their employees, some legislation should be put in place to make working life bearable for young parents and would-be parents.
For instance, it is not illegal for a company to fire a pregnant employee from her job. Companies are technically obliged to still pay maternity benefits if they dismiss their pregnant employees without sufficient cause, but it is all too easy for an employer to claim the employee has been underperforming and thus let go.
Other than beefing up the laws against dismissing pregnant employees, the government could take a calibrated stance by making it compulsory for employers to assess whether flexible work arrangements would be viable for employees and, by extension, women returning to work.
In addition, PMETs have no protection against being made to work excessive hours and generally do not get paid overtime or offered additional days of leave for working over a certain number of hours a week. We understand that the government doesn’t want to introduce onerous legislation that might make companies up and leave.
But saying a company isn’t allowed to work its employees over, say, 70 hours a week without paying OT or giving leave days is reasonable simply because the upper limit is so high. We want Singapore to be business-friendly without allowing businesses to engage in slavery.
With more and more young professionals in the prime of their lives suffering from burnout due to work-related stress, it’s difficult to see how these people would be willing or capable to take on the additional stress of juggling their already overwhelming careers with children.
Offer stronger and simpler incentives for flexibility
One of the biggest problems with Singapore employers is that they’re pretty much still stuck in the 1980s. They truly believe that if they let their employees out of sight for one second, the entire business will collapse.
And despite the wealth of research showing that working long hours hurts productivity, it is still very common for bosses to penalise employees who don’t hang around the office till sundown.
The government has tried taking the carrot approach by offering the Work-Life Grant, but the problem is that the procedure is so troublesome that many companies just give it a miss. What’s more, as the grant is designed to defray the cost of implementing work-life balance systems, it paints a picture of flexibility as a costly exercise, which sends out the wrong signals to SMEs.
Any incentives need to be framed in a simple manner in order to coax companies into offering a little more flexibility. For instance, companies can be rewarded with cash benefits for offering staggered hours, or for allowing employees to work from home at least two days per month. These are initiatives most companies with a competent IT guy don’t exactly need to hire a rocket scientist to implement.
What can be done to make Singapore workplaces more family-friendly? Share your suggestions in the comments!