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Keith Rankin's Thursday Column: Territorial Leave

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Territorial Leave
6 April 2000

Earlier this week, the news broke that part-time soldiers (Territorials) who volunteer to serve in East Timor may lose their jobs if they go. The Employers Federation, while claiming to be sympathetic, appears to be playing hardball in order to win compensation from the Government for its members.

There are some close analogies to Territorial service leave. Jury service leave is one, although this rarely involves more than a week away from one's job. The more important analogy is parental leave.

In New Zealand, all pregnant women who are employed fulltime and have been with their current employer for at least 12 months qualify for up to 12 months of unpaid leave.

If women raising babies can have their jobs protected for 1 year without their employers being compensated, why cannot soldiers be assured of as little as three months leave on a similar basis?

Actually, giving Territorials unpaid leave on the same basis as pregnant women is the key to a solution of a longstanding problem. Employers have always argued that job protection for women who have babies is a reason for discrimination against female job applicants. They say that the likelihood that a women will give several years of continuous full-time service to her employer is less than for an equally qualified man.

True gender equality in the labour market will only exist when employers perceive that it is equally likely that their male and female employees will require unpaid leave.

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The obligation to grant leave for Territorial soldiers would not fully redress the gender imbalance in employers' perceptions of continuity of service. We also need, for example, paternal leave that can be taken on the same basis as maternal leave.

Paternal parental leave, on its own, would probably not achieve gender balance. This is because men would be unlikely to take as much unpaid parental leave as women do, even if they were entitled to as much. Territorial leave, on the other hand, would be taken mainly (but not only) by men.

We can go much further in supporting community service through granting job protection by law. Up to 12 months unpaid leave could be available to men and women representing their country in an internationally recognised amateur sport; eg to train and attend the Olympic Games. Likewise, being chosen to represent one's country in some cultural capacity should be accompanied by job protection. And taking leave to run for political office, if selected as a candidate by a registered political party.

At the time of the 1999 election, Winston Peters wanted male school leavers to be obliged to become Territorials, or to undertake some equivalent community service. The way he formulated his proposal would have seriously disadvantaged males in the school leaver job market. But the idea of granting leave to persons in their twenties to participate in voluntary community service - or voluntary service abroad - surely has merit. Ultimately, such activities are investments that raise the quality of our "human resources".

I would also favour job protection for prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less. There are social benefits in prisoners having a job to go back to when released. Further, it's inequitable if employed persons convicted of crimes are punished twice (prison and redundancy) whereas unemployed persons convicted of similar crimes are only punished once.

If up to 12 months leave - as per parental leave at present - was made available to all of the groups that I've noted above, then not only would a considerable amount of social capital be generated, but also it would be impossible for employers to discriminate on the grounds that some job candidates would be more likely to require extended unpaid leave than others.

The scheduling of unpaid leave to enable people to fulfil public duties is part of the resource cost of employing people. In an efficient economy, employers pay all of their resource costs. Employers who pay the full costs of employing people are only disadvantaged if some other employers are allowed to avoid meeting some of those costs. Employment costs not paid by employers are borne by employees and by society as a whole. The problem is known as 'cost-externalisation'.

Our Territorials should not be impeded by their employers from serving in East Timor. We are grown up enough to grant our women parental leave. We should also be grown up enough to grant leave to our compatriots serving overseas or on taskforces at home. Squabbles about compensation are unseemly. After all, we are talking about unpaid leave.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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