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Mom at work

The notion of the “ideal worker” as essentially male and free of domestic responsibilities still permeates the thinking of many employers.

This misconception fails to acknowledge that for many working women, trying to juggle unpaid work in the household, paid work, as well as parenthood, has created an inevitable “time squeeze” or “care crunch”.

Combining paid employment with the demands of providing care to others is a growing workplace concern. The number of women entering the labour force has increased. There has also been an increase in the number of people in need of care: young children needing early childhood care, the elderly and infirm, and — as a result of HIV/Aids — those orphaned or ill. The state, with employers, has been slow to respond to the needs of employees as caregivers.

Governments worldwide differ on the extent to which they intervene in regulating work-family practices in employer organisations. The South African government’s approach to work-family integration relies on market and social forces to deliver outcomes. This is in contrast to its more prescriptive approach to the regulation of other industrial relations issues, such as affirmative action and skills development.

Simply putting in place legislation to promote affirmative action for women in the South African workplace, thus improving numerical representation at all levels in the organisation, is only one piece of the puzzle. Real equality can be achieved only when the disproportionate burden on women to assume the burden of care and domestic responsibilities is acknowledged and when there are adequate measures to accommodate employees as caregivers in the workplace.

This imperative is expressed in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which South Africa is a signatory, and in International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 156 on Workers with Family Responsibilities (which, unfortunately, South Africa has not ratified yet).

Reconciliation of work and family demands is now a political issue in many countries. The 2008 International Review of Leave Policies and Related Research confirms evidence of increasing state intervention in a number of countries to improve the leave provisions relating to the combination of work and care. South Africa is not one of them, but our government could legislate for the improvement of labour standards regulating the combination of work and care.

There are two main areas of regulation relating to time off to provide care. One: the various types of leave for caregiving and, two: the use of flexible working arrangements as longer-term measures to accommodate employees who provide ongoing care.

Adequate leave provisions include four leave types: time off for mothers (maternity leave) and fathers (paternity leave) at the time of the birth of a child; time off to provide care for the early years of a child’s development (parental leave); and emergency leave covering circumstances such as the sudden illness of a child or dependent family member or the last-minute unavailability of a substitute caregiver.

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act recognises only one of these types of leave in its “pure” form: maternity leave. Paternity leave and emergency care leave are unsatisfactorily combined into a catch-all leave provision known as “family responsibility leave”. This blurs the different types of leave and revision is needed for several other reasons.

Family responsibility leave does not provide for the absence of an employee to attend to a sick or elderly adult relative. It covers only leave to attend to sick children (and the birth and death of defined individuals). Not only is the scope of this leave narrow, bearing in mind the large number of sick adults in the context of HIV/Aids, but is also hopelessly inadequate in duration. The legislated provision of three days of paid leave a year is simply too short, given that this is a multi-purpose leave to be used for the birth, death and illness of defined relatives, and considering the context of care demands in South Africa.

Also, this leave is available only to employees who work four days a week and who have worked for their employer for at least four months. Ideally, family responsibility leave should be treated only as emergency care leave and parental and paternity leave should be regulated in two separate and additional leave provisions.

There is also scope to consider the specific regulation of an employee’s right to work flexibly through, for example, an arrangement to work from home or to job-share with another employee. These options are given statutory recognition in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and more recently in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, where employees now have the legislative right to request flexible working arrangements from their employers for caregiving purposes. Attention is also given to ensuring that these arrangements do not relegate women to “mommy track” jobs with few or no career prospects and that these jobs are fairly remunerated based on sufficient employment security — sometimes termed “flexicurity”.

In principle employees in South Africa can claim to work flexibly on the basis of their “family responsibilities” through the unfair discrimination provisions of the Employment Equity Act, but this option has not been utilised and remains cumbersome and costly for employees. Positive laws affirming employees’ rights to request flexible working arrangements would not only alert them to a working arrangement they may not have considered permissible, but would also provide them with a (usually fairly simple) procedure to claim it from their employer.

To acknowledge the critical need for care in South Africa, we need to recognise the role of employees as caregivers through legislative provisions encompassing a range of leave circumstances, with the right to request flexible working arrangements. These measures are a means of valuing women as the main providers of this vital societal function and are necessary considerations if there is to be true equality of opportunity in the workplace.

Lisa Dancaster is a senior researcher at the health economics and HIV/Aids division of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a mother of two

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