It took Macau more than ten years to increase its statutory maternity leave from 56 days to 70 days.

The amendment to the Labour Relations Law voted by mid-May also introduces five days of paternity leave; existing provisions grant new fathers two days of leave with no pay, unless agreed otherwise with the employer.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Hong Kong has also recently approved an extension of four weeks to its ten-week statutory maternity leave under the Employment Ordinance. The Employment (Amendment) Bill 2019 was submitted to the Legislative Council on January 8. Once enacted, the amendment will put the city on par with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) standard.

Announced during Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address in 2018, the extension of the duration of maternity leave now seems one of the few timely policies the embattled official has been able to undertake.

But it will not be enacted overnight – tentatively next year, according to the Hong Kong government – and some lawmakers still think the SAR is lagging.

Macau certainly is. Capped at only 56 days, its current paid maternity leave is one of the lowest in the world, above only a few countries such as Tunisia, which grants new mothers 30 days of leave.

Although the 70 days were enforced last week, Macau still remains among the places providing less than 12 weeks of maternity leave – some 15 per cent of the 185 places studied by the ILO in a 2014 report with dedicated statistics on maternity leave.

Satisfactory or not, these are changes for the better. But what do they mean to Macau and Hong Kong’s women and families?

A flag raising ceremony in Macau after the Handover. Photo: Macau government.

The short answer is a few more weeks for recovery and coping with the often strenuous demands of early child care.

The long answer is that progress towards women’s rights regarding maternity benefits and protection, which have been on the ILO’s agenda since its foundation in 1919, is still being hindered by corporate and oligarchic interests entwined in both cities’ political structure and traditions.

If we look at the long term, 100 years of international work and campaigning have not morphed into much in the SARs. In 1989, the Portuguese administration of Macau approved 35 days of maternity leave. It took nearly 20 years to increase it by roughly 21 days in 2008.

Hong Kong’s Employment Ordinance has remained unchanged for 48 years. With that much effort, the colonial administrations make the SARs look progressive.

Overall, changes have occurred, but slowly, as women gained space in the workforce and fought more overtly for equality and against discrimination or unlawful dismissal regarding maternity.

Today there is more information available and awareness on the matter, but laws have only partly fulfilled the need for legal instruments regarding such rights.

Photo: GovHK.

Macau, for one, is also sending a confusing public message. By granting female civil servants 90 days of statutory maternity leave, public powers are differentiating women on a market basis, yielding to interests of the business elite and casino lobby.

The costs to introduce such changes have certainly put brakes on the adoption of progressive legislation.

Tycoons and heads of small and medium-sized enterprises, often cash strapped, do not easily come to terms with additional costs for maternity leave. Government support, financial and political, thus has a positive impact.

A casino in Macau. File Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In an effort to uphold the proposal, Macau’s government said it would pay for the two extra weeks of maternity leave in the new bill for three years at an estimated cost of MOP$120 million (HK$116.5 million) to the public coffers.

A mixed scheme of employer liability and social security has also been adopted by the Hong Kong government, which will be adding some HK$36,822 (US$4,723) per employee to its expenses.

Such developments should not stop the SARs moving ahead towards enforcing legal measures and gradually adopting actions that can further improve social ties and harmony, a dear trope to Confucian societies.

Ultimately, this invites thoughts about the meaning of family, the place of women, and the state of their rights.

Increasing paid maternity leave is an important step in this regard, but it is a first, if not timid one in the face of much more complex societal arrangements that still bestow on women a larger role in the domestic sphere.

There needs to be a reassessment of men’s role in the family. Scant days of paternity leave, in the majority of places worldwide including Macau and Hong Kong, send an alarming signal about the lingering power of patriarchy: there is still no major paradigm shift in gender roles regarding parental rights and duties.

Macau. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In many countries around the world legislation assumes that early child care still relies on women. One may argue that a biological constraint – women give birth, men don’t – limits women’s physical ability to resume work immediately after delivery, or that confinement helps promote successful breastfeeding.

But it is unsound to assume that men cannot, should not, or do not want to take a larger share of responsibility for early child development and care. Governments should help provide legal instruments to enable this.

Finally, we need to begin thinking more systematically about parental and not only maternity rights. Questioning commonly undisputed ideas of women’s motherly role would virtually equal the dawn of a revolution in many societies. But the creation of better conditions for child-rearing ought to address the weak link: paternity rights. That’s one path to gender equality.

Sheyla Zandonai

Sheyla Zandonai, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and mother based in Macau, where she is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Saint Joseph. She is also Research Associate in the Laboratoire Architecture Anthropologie at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris La Villette in France. Zandonai has co-authored Slogans: Subjection, Subversion, and the Politics of Neoliberalism and published extensively in international academic journals and media outlets about Macau, identity politics, city-making and heritage practices.