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?
2 years ago, 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 be done if the government is truly committed to growing the birth rate.
1. Make it compulsory for employers to have childcare leave and unpaid infant care leave
When the civil service announced in March 2017 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 completely 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.
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.
2. Promote flexible work arrangements
One of the biggest problems with Singapore employers is that they’re pretty much still stuck in the 1980s. They truly believe that the more hours put in means more work done, although there’s a wealth of research that proves otherwise. Long hours lead to increased fatigue, safety risks and stress, while reducing productivity.
The government has tried taking the carrot approach by offering the Work-Life Grant, but 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.
The fact is that flexible work hours could help to attract talents, as seen in global company Spotify where mothers and fathers are entitled parental leave up to the child’s third birthday.
The government needs to give simpler cash incentives to coax companies into offering flexible work arrangements, such as:
- Shifting of work hours: Instead of a 9-to-6pm arrangement, some parents may appreciate an 8-to-5pm arrangement as this means that they can return home earlier to cook and pick up their children.
- Work from home 2 days a month: If there are no meetings that require the employee to be physically present, companies can give them the benefit of working from home 2 days a month. This reduces the stress of having to ration childcare leave and infant care leave. Employees can work on clearly spelled out deliverables to ensure productivity.
3. Subsidies for family-friendly facilities
Many young mothers who are returning to work after the 16-week maternity leave would still be breastfeeding and probably would like to pump breastmilk for their newborns.
A one-off subsidy can be implemented for companies that have new mothers and would like to create a nursing room for them.
The room should have a power outlet, a comfortable chair and a small side table. A fridge is perfect but not compulsory, if there is already a common fridge available for use. Excluding the fridge, these add up to $200 or so, which is a token sum that sends strong signals that the company cares for employees in that stage of life.
What can be done to make Singapore workplaces more family-friendly? Share your suggestions in the comments!