Extending paid parental leave provisions could lead to employer discrimination against mothers returning to the workforce, a prominent business lobby group has said.
Statements made last week by Paul Mackay from Business New Zealand, while he was presenting the group’s submission on the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill, have sparked public outrage.
Business NZ was supportive of parental leave overall, Mackay said, before claiming that overseas studies showed extended parental leave can make it difficult for mothers to get back into the workforce because it increased pressure on employers to get them back up to speed. “Employers who have been forced to bear considerable replacement costs, or to find those amongst their other employees willing to provide cover, may well think hard before again employing a woman of child-bearing age.”
Some research suggests people lose skills when they take extended time off work, he later told media. “Take the example of a rugby player, who takes an extended break. They need time to get their skills back, get their training back, before they're back in the number one position.”
More work needed to be done to determine the indirect costs of parental leave – including reorganising around absence and “human capital depreciation”, Mackay said. “The uncertainty of return [to work] increases with the length of absence and that uncertainty of return is one of the largest issues that employers have to face.”
Widespread accusations of sexism immediately followed Mackay’s submission, with the bill’s sponsor, Labour MP Sue Moroney, comparing the comments to former Employers and Manufacturers Association head Alasdair Thompson's infamous comments about women workers last year*.
Business New Zealand’s views were surprising and not representative of most employers, or submitters, Moroney said. “Not only do these women make up a reasonable chunk of the workforce, female participation in the paid workforce has actually increased since paid parental leave was introduced.”
It is difficult to entertain that idea as being a serious roadblock given that paid parental leave is taxpayer funded and is a huge benefit to employers with virtually no cost, she continued. “Suggesting that this [extending parental leave provisions] would be bad for women is just nonsense.”
Key HR takeaway
Under New Zealand’s human rights legislation, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their gender, and pregnancy (or pregnancy-related) discrimination is considered a form of discrimination in itself.
Information about what constitutes sex and/or pregnancy discrimination is available from the Human Rights Commission.
Comprehensive information about parental leave in New Zealand is available from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
* Thompson was forced to resign after he said that menstruation impacted on the work ethic of many women and could be one of the reasons they earned less than men.
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