Longer maternal leave is a two-edged sword
by Tran Quynh Hoa
HA NOI (VNS)— After four years of trying, Le Kim Thoa couldn't believe it was true. Both her quick test and ultrasound results showed she was pregnant again, 48 months after first becoming a mum.
"It's a miracle for me and my husband," said the young woman. "Doctors told me I was almost certainly infertile after giving birth to our first son."
Needless to say, her rosy face beamed and her heart beat quickened with happiness, but soon the contentment subsided when Thoa remembered her work commitment – no pregnancy in the first two years.
The choice between the second child and her dream job, for which she had just finished the probation period, seemed too difficult to decide.
"I don't want to lose this well-paid job. It was very difficult for me to win the post in this economic slowdown," she said as her smile disappeared, leaving her carefully trimmed eyebrows furrowed with worry. All people would feel for her.
The verbal commitment of "two no-baby years" is common in the Vietnamese labour market where women are still discriminated against during recruitment. And female workers may suffer further disadvantages seeking employment when the new Labour Code, increasing the maternity rule from four to six months, takes effect next year.
Although the laws protect females from any forms of discrimination based on sex and Viet Nam has already signed the international convention against discrimination in employment and occupation, women still have much to worry about.
As director of Worker and Trade Union Institute Dang Quang Dieu said, "Law enforcement is another story".
Vu Kim Anh, a 28-year-old banker in Ha Noi, had six job interviews before her current role and all employers asked if she had plans for marriage and children in the next two years. "No one would give me a post if I said yes," she said.
A report by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concluded that employers give preference to male job applicants and actively discourage females by prohibiting marriage and pregnancy during a certain period following recruitment.
"Discriminatory recruitment practices based on sex are quite common in the current labour market," noted the 2011 report on the assessment of Viet Nam's implementation of the international convention against gender discrimination.
Many employers, both State-owned and private sector, only recruit males for jobs either sex could handle "because of prejudices that female workers would be disrupted by pregnancy, children and other family burdens".
According to the General Statistical Office, 78 per cent of women of working age join the labour force, compared to 86 per cent of men.
Female workers in the informal sectors "often have unstable jobs and are much more likely to be scared (of losing them)", indicated the ILO/MoLISA report.
The amended Labour Code passed last June was seen as an advance for society since increasing maternity leave from four to six months would support longer breast-feeding. But at the same time it might make employers even more hesitant when deciding to recruit women.
"Longer maternity leave will certainly affect female jobs," Dieu said. Despite the good intentions, it will make it more difficult for women to apply for positions where employers have choices between the two sexes, he added. Enterprises in women-dominated sectors such as textiles and processing industries will try to break the regulations.
While praising the extension of maternity leave as a positive move, Manpower Viet Nam, a leading head-hunting company in the country, warned it would be a challenge for employers, particularly "while there are limited human-resources solutions."
"Finding a competent replacement just for six months is not an easy job," said the company general manager Nguyen Kieu Linh.
According to MoLISA's Labour Law Division deputy director Ngo Hoang, discriminatory recruitment based on sex tends not to happen in enterprises with good business strategies and mostly remains the practice of short-sighted business managers.
Manpower Viet Nam GM also suggested outsourcing as a good option for supporting the new maternity policy.
However, despite supporting the change for workers' health and child development, Nguyen Tuan Anh, managing director of energy and environment consulting firm RCEE-NIRAS, admitted that longer maternity leave would increase recruiting costs.
Temporary staff replacing those on leave "could hardly perform at the same level and by no means have as developed partner relations as permanent staff", he said.
But experts worried that not many employers would be as understanding as Tuan Anh when it comes to the recruitment decision.
"The overall awareness of society on the importance of helping working mums has not developed enough and neither has that of the employers'," said Hoang.
Back to the present, with just six months before the new maternity leave regulations take effect, mum-to-be Thoa was grappling what she described as "the most difficult choice" in her life.
"Some of my friends in similar situations have had abortions to secure their jobs, but I just can't do that," she said in tears. — VNS