MALAYSIA’S female labour force participation rate is low and lagging among Asean member states.

Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore reported its female participation rate of more than 60 per cent last year.

Up to the first quarter of this year, the female labour force participation rate is only 55.8 per cent, as reported by the Department of Statistics Malaysia.

While there are many factors that contributed to the lack of women in the workforce, discrimination towards pregnant women is one of them.

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) said more than 40 per cent of women in the workforce experienced pregnancy discrimination.

This includes denial of promotion, prolonged probation period, and worse, higher likelihood of job loss due to the perceived extra cost of employing female employees.

Another survey revealed that 40 per cent of women had been asked about their personal life on whether they plan to become pregnant or if they were pregnant.

In the 2020 Budget , it was announced that maternity leave will be increased from 60 days to 90 days.

Human Resources Minister M. Kula Segaran had correctly said before that “Maternity leave is essential for a new mother as after birth, she needs to take good care of herself to rebuild her strength and will need plenty of rest, good nutrition and help.”

Maternity leave and paternity leave are part of workers’ welfare, family wellbeing and the well-being of the community.

However, this move was received disapproval from certain employers.

One of them includes a local entrepreneur who claimed there may be a negative impact, emphasising that women may get out of touch with their jobs and this had deterred employers from appointing women in high-ranking positions.

Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan had also expressed his worry about small- and medium-scale enterprises’ ability to absorb additional cost due to this move.

Some find it saddening to hear an opposing view from a woman itself.

In reality, maternity leave is part of fundamental human rights according to Convention No.183 and Recommendation No. 191 (2000) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

According to ILO, 14 weeks is the standard minimum paternity leave period.

ILO even recommended that member states extend the maternity period up to at least 18 weeks.

This is crucial for mothers to recover from childbirth and provide adequate care and forge a bond with their newborn.

What can the government do?

Firstly, amendments should be made to the Employment Act in respect to gender discrimination. Job seekers should be legally protected from discrimination, by being subjected to inappropriate questions during a job interview.

There is no law in Malaysia that can penalise a company that refuses to hire a pregnant woman.

Enquiries related to pregnancy and marital status during job interviews should be categorised as discrimination.

Hence, labour laws should be revised to accommodate pregnant women.

Secondly, paternity leave for fathers should be encouraged in the private sector to break gender barriers and discrimination.

There is a structural discrimination towards women as they take maternity leave and men don’t assist in caring for their newborns by taking paternity leave.

This weakens women’s position in the labour market as they are perceived to be a liability to employers as they spend less time at work.

Hence, allowing paternity leave will balance the equilibrium to both genders as men will also be entitled to parental leave.

Lastly, for small- and medium- scale enterprises that employ fewer than five workers, the government may consider a shared contribution between the public and private sectors in funding the cost of maternity leave.

In Honduras and Mexico, the state pays a specific percentage as a supplementary contribution to maternity benefits.

Thus, to protect SMEs, the government can adopt this model by working with SMEs to provide maternity benefits.

Considering that the fertility rate has declined in the past years, maternity leave needs to be stressed as one of the benefits given to working mothers.

Encouraging and supporting a rise birth rates should be considered as an investment in the economy.

This is also to ensure female talent can be retained in the economy, especially when the number of female enrolment in universities is on the rise.

The writer is research analyst at the Institute for Research and Development of Policy