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Maternity and paternity laws we can be proud of could soon be here

Voices | Published:

By Lucy Stephenson

(23931705)

A YEAR ago I’d have laughed if someone had suggested that within months Jersey could have maternity and paternity laws to be proud of.

Yet here we are just a few weeks from a debate in the States Chamber which could lead to exactly that.

Social Security Minister Judy Martin has lodged a proposition setting out the latest changes to family-friendly legislation – and if politicians give her their backing major improvements will be on the way.

To summarise, the legislation, if approved, will introduce up to a year off work for both parents taken in up to four blocks over three years. Six weeks of that leave will be paid by employers for both parents.

Importantly, the rights cover all parents – heterosexual, same sex, surrogate and adoptive included.

And there will also be new workplace breastfeeding rights once mothers return to work.

First things first, the critics are right when they say that it doesn’t actually make any difference for mothers when it comes to paid time off, as they already get six weeks of paid leave.

But let’s put it into perspective – a woman in Jersey would be paid for six weeks by the employer and then receive a further 12 weeks of maternity allowance at £216.86 per week.

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In the UK, the law is not actually that much more generous, despite what it may first appear.

Statutory maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks, at 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks and then £145.18 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

So after those first six weeks, women in the UK are entitled to around £4,790 (using the £145.18 weekly figure) in payments, while in Jersey that comparable figure is £2,602. Take into account the 90% figure in the UK for the first six weeks, and us Islanders are not actually that much worse off. The systems just look different, that is all.

Where we do differ to the UK, however, is that many more employers in the UK choose to pay their staff for longer, above and beyond the statutory minimums.

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And that is because they have been doing this a lot longer than we have and maternity rights have become part and parcel of the packages that can make employers more attractive than their rivals.

But it has taken a long time for them to get to that point, and we can’t expect our local companies to follow suit straight away.

Some do already, but most because they are linked to UK parent companies.

The Jersey business world is going to find it hard enough to accept the proposed changes as they stand. Indeed, the Chamber of Commerce has already said it isn’t happy and warned that the proposals could put small and struggling firms out of business if approved as they stand.

Instead the organisation says that the government should bear some of the financial burden, as the UK does when it allows small business to claim up to 103% of their costs.

But the reality is in a low-tax jurisdiction like Jersey there’s only so much money to go around.

The latest proposals do place a burden on employers, but it is a measured one.

The most exciting part of the proposals, however, is the fact that both parents – whatever their gender – would be entitled to up to a year off. And the system would be flexible, allowing parents to have time off together, separately, or in chunks as suits them, their family and their financial situation.

Again, it’s not what employers wanted to hear. But if you look at the long-term potential for the wellbeing of our community it has real opportunity.

For decades and despite laws against it, employers have continued to discriminate against women of child-bearing age in the job market in case they start a family.

If this legislation is passed, the playing field will level. It won’t be flat, of course, as women are still more likely to take the full time off work than men, but there will certainly be fewer hills.

There’s a challenge ahead for any men who will benefit from this, however. And that is getting over the guilt that accompanies such decisions.

Most women who have taken maternity leave will know the almost apologetic feeling you get at times when it comes to planning the time off, when you meet a colleague who tells you how busy they are back at the office or then once you return to work and ask for hours that suit you.

Employers (I’d hope in the main) don’t mean to make you feel like that, its just part and parcel of the process. That’s a sad fact, yes, and in an ideal world it would not be that way.

And my comments are certainly not designed to put anyone off – quite the opposite, they are to ensure those involved are prepared.

Because the key is not to let it stop you using the rights you have and doing what is best for your family.

At first men may find it daunting to take such a length of time off work, or even approach their employers to discuss the idea. But that is just something we all, as a community, need to get over.

Because there’s a real opportunity here, for families and wider society.

And who’d have thought that an island that just a few short years ago had no law at all on maternity and paternity would have got here already?

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
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