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Paid Parental Leave Underweight And Overdue

13 December 2001

First reading speech - Sue Kedgley
Embargoed until Delivery

If men gave birth to babies paid parental leave would have been introduced in New Zealand decades ago.

The extraordinary thing about this legislation is that a country which prides itself on its progressive social legislation, on having a progressive system of social welfare is still debating - at the start of the 21st century -whether or not to give women a measly 12 weeks of paid parental leave when they give birth to a baby.

It is extraordinary too that we are one of the only OECD countries that doesn't already have it - and that more than 100 countries in the world are doing much better than we are in this regard.

It is extraordinary, too, that Laila Harre has had such a huge battle to get the agreement of her own Government for this modest piece of legislation, and to finally bring it to this house.

I don't believe anyone would question the fact that giving birth to children and bringing them up is the most productive work in our society. Or that it is desirable for women to spend as much time as possible with their babies after giving birth. Or that women need time after birth to establish breastfeeding and recover from giving birth.

Even ACT would acknowledge that the children of today are the taxpayers of the future, and that everyone has a stake in society's children, and in ensuring they are healthy and well nurtured.

So why have we not moved years ago to assist women, and financially compensate them, for giving birth to babies and looking after them.

The answer of course is that motherhood has been so undervalued in our society, that many people don't even regard it as real work. Motherhood is seen as something women can fit in on top of everything else. It is invisible, unpaid, unrewarded and seriously undervalued.

So the Green Party would like to congratulate Laila Harre on her long struggle to introduce this bill to allow women to take 12 weeks paid leave, funded by general taxation, when they have children.

It is not Laila Harre's fault that this legislation is so long overdue, or that it is so underweight.

Twelve weeks is an arbitrary and miserly amount of time to give mothers paid leave, and does not even meet the minimum international standard of the ILO, which New Zealand has signed up to, for 14 weeks paid parental leave.

In the Green Party's view it should be at least 14 weeks to comply with the ILO standard, and we will be seeking to amend the legislation to ensure it does comply.

The Green Party would not like 12 weeks of paid parental leave to be interpreted as implying that 12 weeks is somehow an adequate period of time for women to successfully bond with their child, establish breastfeeding, sort out health problems and learn parenting skills when obviously it is not.

A year would be a much more realistic time to do these things, and that is why many European countries now give parents a year of paid parental leave.

It is unfair and discriminatory that this scheme does not extend to self employed women. Many women are self employed and it's a growing trend amongst women. We should be encouraging women to be self employed, not penalising them.

We are not in the slightest bit convinced by the arguments of officials that it is too difficult to monitor whether self employed mothers are working or not. ACC does not discriminate against the self employed or argue it cannot extend coverage to people who are self employed because they can't monitor their working habits, and nor should this legislation.

We wonder whether the self employed have been excluded, in truth, for budgetary reasons - because there is not enough money to cover them in next year's budget - rather than for any genuine administrative concerns.

Accordingly, the Green party will be seeking to be on the select committee which hears this bill, and to amend the eligibility criteria in the legislation to extend paid parental leave to self employed working women.

We are also concerned that the payment is taxable and we are alarmed that it is subject to student loan repayments and child support deductions. We do not believe payment should be subject to student loan repayments. In fact government should look at giving women leave from loan repayments over this period, and we will be seeking amendments in this regard.

We would like to see paid parental leave as part of a comprehensive package of measures to improve conditions for new mothers who choose - or are forced - to remain in the workforce.

We need to increase subsidies for pre-school and out of school childcare, and bring in family-friendly legislation which allows new parents to work more flexible hours.

New family-friendly legislation has been introduced in England which guarantees parents with children under six the right to change their working hours while their children are young. We need similar legislation here in New Zealand.

As a first step, the Green Party wants to increase the period of unpaid leave that new parents are able to take from their employment from one year to 18 months or two years and allow unpaid leave to be taken flexibly - that is to allow mothers to work part time until the child is five.

And now that paid parental leave has at last been secured, it is essential we turn our attention to supporting mothers who are not in the workforce, or who choose to take more than a year out for full-time parenting.

We need policies which aim at maximising the quality time a child spends with its parents and whanau, and which encourages shared parenting right from birth.

Mothers should be treated equitably, whether they are inside or outside the paid workforce. We don't want this legislation to imply that the Government only values mothers if they return to the workforce, or to discriminate against parents who believe it is best for their children that they look after them in their early years.

Research shows that mothers who take time out from the workforce to look after their children feel marginalised, undervalued and discriminated against in our society.

It is essential we look at ways of supporting them too. Ideally they would be paid the same amount of money, and for the same period of time, as mothers who are returning to the paid workforce.

We are pleased that the paid parental credit is being retained but we can see no reason why it should apply only for eight weeks, while paid parental leave is for 12 weeks. We want to see it extended for 12 weeks, and paid at the same effective rate as paid parental leave.


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