Ministry, party agree to expand child care leave

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Ministry, party agree to expand child care leave

Working mothers with children in the third grade or lower at elementary schools will probably be able to take a one-year paid leave of absence from their jobs starting next year, according to an agreement worked out between the Saenuri Party and the Ministry of Employment and Labor on Monday.

Many other changes benefiting working moms will be in the offing if other revision of laws on gender equality in employment and “work-life balance” are approved by the National Assembly by the end of the year.

The current law says mothers of children age 6 and younger can take a year off to care for their children. The new proposal sets the limit at the end of third grade, covering children up to age 9 or 10.

In addition, women in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy or who are more than 36 weeks pregnant would be entitled to work six hours a day rather than the standard eight if the changes are approved. Companies would face no legal penalties, but would be named and shamed by the government.

The proposal is the next step in an expansion of child care entitlements that were most recently modified three years ago. In February 2010, the age limit of children whose mothers were entitled to take time off was raised from 3 to 6. The ministry and the ruling party said the new measures were an attempt to raise the number of women in the workforce.

If approved, the measure would put Korea at the fore among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - the “rich nations club” - in child care benefits. Most of the top tier of those nations - Norway, Canada, Japan, Germany and France, for example - limit the age of children to 3 or younger. Although Austria and the Netherlands allow child care leave for mothers of children age 8 or older, the leave is shorter than in Korea and is unpaid.

Korean businesses are aghast at the prospect of the changes, and smaller companies in particular are vocal. Although politicians justify the step as a way to lure more women to the workforce, those companies see nothing but another blow to their ability to staff their firms.

“Small- and medium-size companies that have a hard time obtaining an adequate workforce will find it almost impossible to hire substitutes,” said Choo Moon-gap, the head of public relations at the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business. “A government-led expansion of child care leave will only contribute to intensifying the worker-shortage problem and force smaller firms to stop hiring more women.”

The labor sector doesn’t welcome the government move either, and for the same reason.

Child care leave is allowed for both women and men, but the majority of those taking advantage of the opportunity are women. Of the 64,000 workers who left their jobs last year to spend a year with their children, only 1,790, less than 3 percent, were men.

Some observers also fear the new welfare regulations could deal a blow to the employment insurance fund, because the monthly salary of workers on paid leave comes from that source. The fund has already faced snowballing losses in recent years, largely because of the number of working mothers taking advantage of the program. The fund’s deficit was 106.9 billion won ($99.5 million) in 2007, but grew almost six-fold to 613.8 billion won last year.


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