It wasn’t perfect, but the ‘shared leave’ bill at least acknowledged the big problems with the status quo, writes law expert Claire Breen.
The Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Shared Leave) Amendment Bill promised to be a significant step in the evolution of New Zealand’s statutory system of parental leave. The premise was simple: instead of the current system whereby the birth parent transfers entitlements to their partner, the bill would have allowed spouses and partners to split the paid parental leave. This approach would have allowed them to choose whether to take some time off together, and/or alternate the time that they could take off.
The benefits of shared parenting are clear: improved health among mothers and children, and improved educational outcomes for children have been found where fathers take leave. Fathers who take leave have greater involvement in childcare and unpaid labour at home. They also tend to stay more involved as children grow up and tend to report greater life satisfaction and better physical and mental health.
Shared parenting leave would help embed parenting as a shared role. This would have had a wider social effect by further encouraging efforts to normalise fathers taking time out of their careers, and so reduce social concerns that may prevent some fathers from making that choice.
All of these benefits would go some way to closing the gender pay gap too. The bill would have made it easier for some mothers to return to the workforce, helping to reduce the “motherhood penalty”.
Labour’s failure to support the bill is disappointing. It’s also confusing, given that Labour played an instrumental role in the creation of the paid parental leave system – initiatives that, historically, National has been less supportive of.
Why did Labour not support it?
The case against
Deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni expressed concerns that shared entitlements may impact the ability to meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for six months of exclusive breastfeeding, which has benefits for children’s health, development and survival. There’s evidence backing her up. Research shows that once women return to work after childbirth they are less likely to begin or continue breastfeeding; an early return to work and working conditions are the main reasons for the discontinuation. In New Zealand, the requirement for employers to provide appropriate facilities and breaks for employees who wish to breastfeed during work may mitigate some of these concerns. But it must also be acknowledged that some women choose not to breastfeed, while others cannot.
It is also true that shared leave may have a negative impact on the health of the birthing parent. Longer periods of parental leave are associated with better health outcomes. Recent American research shows that 55% of women there return during their child’s infancy and most return within the first three months after childbirth, despite often experiencing lingering physical and mental health issues related to pregnancy and giving birth.
Financial difficulties are the main reason that mothers, particularly those on low incomes, return to work earlier than anticipated.
A question of cost
One of the advantages of the shared leave bill was its overall lack of cost to the taxpayer, meaning that the pot of benefits to be paid remains the same. But this point may also be the proposal’s key weakness, as the overall amount of money available to parents also stays the same. Despite the recent increase in paid leave entitlements to $717.12 before tax, it’s still lower than the $908 earned by minimum wage employees on a 40-hour week, before tax. Some parents will have to decide whether they can afford to forgo the income of the higher earning parent (often the father); the implications of the gender pay gap, which is sitting at 9.2%, can be felt here too. Although fathers may be keen to step out of the workforce and into the caring role, the financial cost to the household may prevent them from doing so.
And a note of caution
Shared parenting leave was introduced in Britain in 2015. By 2019, only 1% of parents had used it. A report from July this year revealed that the scheme had not led to more equal parenting for most families, with the greatest uptake being among high earning professionals. Another UK study found two in five new fathers did not access paid parental leave, for reasons including a lack of eligibility, lack of security in the employment relationship, and lack of affordability.
The introduction of father-specific leave and paid entitlements is a different way to encourage shared parenting. In terms of uptake among fathers, it has proven more successful particularly where there is well-paid paternity leave to reflect the impact of the gender pay gap that often means that fathers earn more than mothers. It may seem counterintuitive to ring fence decent paternity payments for men as a means to encourage shared parenting, but it seems to be more successful on that front and in closing the gender pay gap. Dedicated leave and entitlements for fathers also shows the ineffectiveness of the current system that offers payments lower than the minimum wage, and which are mainly taken up by women.
A lost opportunity
One of the most positive features in the parliamentary debates around this bill was, Labour’s stance aside, the cross party recognition of the benefits of shared parenting. The bill was a clear – and potentially quick – step towards providing some greater support to parents and children. There may well be questions around the proposed law change’s ability to deliver on its promises for New Zealand families and whānau more widely, but had the bill been able to progress to the next stage, it may have been possible to consider those challenges and to consider other options for change. Unfortunately, that conversation has stopped for now. All that can be hoped for is that the conversation has not stopped for good, and that when it does arise again that it will be supported with the same passion and commitment.
Professor Claire Breen’s area of expertise is in national and international human rights law, with a particular focus upon the rights of the child