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Moving Towards ‘Normal’: What Should Policymakers And Employers Do To Support Caregivers? – Anis Farid

Policy changes need to be adopted to both support women returning to and retain them in the workforce. 

Picture courtesy of International SOS.

As we begin transitioning into endemicity, we are entering new territory. For many, this means returning to offices, after a long period of time working from home or on hybrid schedules. This change seems set to impact caregivers the most. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, those responsible for caregiving, primarily women, have reported decreased productivity, compared to men.

In shouldering the double burden of work and the bulk of caregiving, many women had to leave the formal workforce.

Malaysia has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in Southeast Asia and a large gender gap of 25 per cent percentage points (80 per cent of men compared to 55 per cent of women).

Women’s unemployment has not recovered at the same pace as men’s unemployment either.

Undoubtedly, the expectation for women to play the main caregiver role limits their ability to participate in the formal workforce, with trends suggesting that young women in Malaysia choose less secure work for its flexibility. 

In transitioning to endemicity, one of the core goals is economic recovery. Therefore, policy changes need to be adopted to both support women returning to and retain them in the workforce. 

Apart from the introduction of work from home policies that have granted caregivers flexibility, what else should be done?

Retain Flexible Work-From-Home Arrangements

In a survey by EY, only 22 per cent of Malaysians said they would prefer to work from office full-time after the pandemic eases. The majority of workers in Malaysia stated a preference for flexible and hybrid work arrangements.

The pandemic has shown that these flexible schedules can be manageable and successful. Flexible work arrangements also allow employees to manage tasks at their own pace.

For caregivers, this is extremely helpful, allowing them to plan their schedules around those under their care, while still ensuring productivity.

In fact, in a survey by McKinsey, two-thirds of parents reported that hybrid models and flexible work schedules could alleviate stress associated with returning to work. Moving into endemicity, employers should retain this flexibility as it is crucial to provide caregivers the support they need.

Additionally, the recently passed Employment Act amendments gives employees the right to request for flexible work arrangements (Section 60P), which employers are required to respond to with reasons as to why or why not. Therefore, employees should definitely take advantage of this new provision.

Testing Policies

McKinsey’s findings suggest that parents with young children were more likely to be mentally worried about returning to work for safety concerns, adding that regular testing helped alleviate these concerns.

Though not required by the government, introducing regular testing policies with companies — perhaps even through provision of RTK testing kits — may help ease caregivers’ concerns, especially in the process of transitioning to endemicity. These policies can be eased as we near endemicity.

Adjusting Leave Policies At Work

The hallmark of endemicity is the fact that we’ll have to live with the virus. This realistically means that spouses, children, and parents will get sick.

It is important work policies extend empathy to caregivers, allowing them time off, when necessary, to look after their loved ones without penalising them.

As cases in Malaysia rise and remain high, flexibility in allowing for leaves can help support caregivers as they adjust to the change.

For example, alternative leaves can be introduced, such as carer’s leave, which does not deduct from an individual’s own sick or annual leaves. 

Integrating Child Care Policies For Work

Accessibility to child care remains one of the biggest barriers, especially for working women, when returning to work.

To better support parents as caregivers, mainstreaming child care and family-friendly policies can accomplish a lot.

Malaysia has a shortage of child care centres, with estimates placing a shortage of 30,00080,000 centres.

The government must invest more in child care, specifically prioritising affordable and accessible services, such as taskas, for parents. 

Simultaneously, though, employers must also play a role. This could be, where possible, providing childcare support to parents, through allowances, or introducing childcare facilities onsite. These changes pay off in the long run.

Findings worldwide indicate that women’s ability to place children in subsidised childcare enabled them to earn a higher income without needing to work more hours.

Separately, another study found that parents with access to onsite facilities were able to concentrate better at work, were more likely to remain at a job, and could more effectively balance their work and family commitments. 

Smoothly Introduce Employment Act Amendment Policies

The new Employment Act amendments guarantees seven days of paternity leave for fathers and 98 days of maternity leave for mothers.

The deputy human resource minister, in a speech in Parliament, said that this provision will apply to all employees and a Minister’s Order will be issued accordingly.

As we await the Minister’s Order, it is important that these new changes be integrated into current work policies to ensure a smooth transition. However, it is also crucial that the Minister’s Order be issued urgently. 

It remains uncertain how long this transition into endemicity will last, but according to the health minister, it will be a slow one. Undeniably, we will face new challenges in this transitory phase.

However, by adopting the above measures and mainstreaming care into how we think about our work policies, we can prepare for some of these challenges to ensure as successful a transition into endemicity for everyone.

Anis Farid is a research and advocacy officer at Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.

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