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KUALA LUMPUR, July 22 (Bernama) – Husna Hayati Jarni’s childcare story started – as it often does when it comes to women, work and babies – with a resignation.
When the 38-year-old, a former oil and gas engineer who is married to another engineer, gave birth to her first child over a decade ago, she at first thought she could have a baby and a career.
Reality soon disabused her of that notion. For one thing, her husband’s and her shifts at work conflicted and she resigned from her job.
“Back then, I was working in Labuan. And we had been trying to find the best babysitter, the best day-care service. It was very difficult so that’s why I had to give up my career,” she told Bernama via Zoom.
While the story may have started with Husna giving up her career, it does not end there.
After staying home with their eldest son for two years, she later found a special needs day-care centre for him when he was diagnosed as autistic. She then worked on her Master’s degree part-time before joining Universiti Teknologi MARA as a lecturer in the School of Engineering. She is now working on her PhD.
She also went on to have two more children – a daughter and son now aged five and four respectively.
Unlike many working women in Malaysia, Husna managed to return to the workforce after giving up her career earlier due to family obligations. Experts describe Malaysia as a nation with single peak female labour participation, that is, women tend to enter the workforce after graduation, causing a peak, but there is no second peak such as in Japan and South Korea where women return to the workforce after taking time off following childbirth.
Husna was also able to find affordable and good childcare services to help her, something that eludes many of her peers.
She told Bernama she was lucky to have flexible hours, a supportive husband who usually cooks for the family and takes care of their eldest son, and an extended family she can rely on for emergency babysitting needs.
As numerous studies have shown, childcare assistance is the key to many women returning to the workforce, be it in the form of flexible working hours or quality childcare services or subsidies to pay for childcare.
A 2020 Women in the Workforce Survey conducted by The Asia Foundation in collaboration with the Merdeka Centre found that out of 605 respondents, 47 percent picked flexible work arrangements, with quality childcare coming in at 32 percent, as the biggest incentive for them to return to the workforce.
Over the years, the government has also introduced various schemes to encourage women to return to the workforce. In 2019, the government introduced Women@Work, which provided a monthly allowance of RM500 to working mothers who return to work but COVID-19 derailed those efforts.
More recently, the government rolled out the Jamin Kerja initiative, which subsidises salaries of women and others for up to a year, as well as the Career Comeback Tax Exemption programme by TalentCorp.
Despite the initiatives, Malaysia’s female labour participation rate (FLPR) remains one of ASEAN’s lowest at 55.5 percent, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM). Forty-two percent of the 7.27 million women in the labour force cited housework and family responsibilities as their reason for not being able to work and earn an income.
And even if women are in the workforce, they still do the bulk of the care work at home, on top of their paid jobs. The Women in the Workforce Survey also found that women have lost employment opportunities and are more susceptible to retrenchment because of the unpaid care work they do.
Research carried out in 2019 by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) on gender inequality, unpaid care work and time use found that women spent an average of 3.6 hours daily on unpaid care work, compared to 2.2 hours by men.
The reason is partly cultural. A 2012 Women Matter: Asia Perspective analysis by McKinsey found that women underwent the double burden of balancing work and domestic responsibilities, noting that culturally, many women in Asia believed it was their duty to do so.
Steering committee member of the Malaysian Chapter of the 30% Club Pauline Ho could relate to this cultural imperative. After she gave birth to triplets in 2006, she felt she had to make up for the fact that she was working by being a “super-mom” to her children for the first few years.
“I made it a point to take care of all the babies at night when I came back from work. So the first couple of years it was crazy. I think I hardly slept the whole night because I think this is one of those things that people put on themselves… but I felt that since I'm going to work during the day, I need to put it back somehow,” she said.
She acknowledged how fortunate she was to have a support system in her husband and the means to employ additional assistance. She did not have to give up her job as a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She is now involved in mentoring women for leadership roles.
Ho said a more equal division of labour is important to help women return to work.
“In all instances, the husband has to put in some effort. To be honest, you cannot rely on one person. Two (people) made the child, right? So, therefore, two people have to raise the child,” she added.
KRI researcher Christopher Choong agreed, adding that there has been a lot of focus on getting women to join the workforce but without actually dealing with the unpaid labour women tend to do such as cooking, housework and childcare.
“You’re in the labour market, earning an income, but then … after office hours, you also have to start to deal with your care work or what we call the second shift,” he said.
“This is why targeting men's role in the family must be made part of the strategy so that there's gender equality to this,” he added.
IMPROVING THE CHILDCARE SECTOR
Although the government has been encouraging more childcare centres to open – in government office buildings first before the private sector – experts say it is not enough. They say more investment is needed in community and family-based care work. Recognising the informal babysitters and professionalising the care sector would hopefully solve all the issues.
That means investing fully in the sector – creating a pool of local care workers and care infrastructures, streamlining the approval process and providing funding. Childcare centre operators Bernama talked to said there is a shortage of qualified and trained nannies, adding that the turnover is high too as they have to work hard for minimum wage. There is also a shortage of such centres, be it institutional, community-based or home-based.
“Unfortunately, we have been overly dependent on buying care (domestic workers) from (neighbouring countries), but not investing in our own care infrastructures,” said Associate Prof Dr Shanthi Thambiah of the gender studies programme at Universiti Malaya.
According to the Social Welfare Department website, there are 2,983 registered day-care centres in Malaysia, including 247 office day-care centres and 380 at-home day-care centres. Since the number of children cannot exceed a certain capacity, depending on the type and size of the day-care centre, the number of registered centres currently available is not enough to accommodate Malaysia’s children aged below five. There are an estimated 2.6 million children in that age group, based on DoSM figures.
Much of the shortage of registered centres is due to the licensing requirements, especially among home-based day-care centres. Under the Child Care Centre Act 1984 and Care Centres Act1993, operators of such centres have to fulfil various requirements, including training, health and safety of the premises, before getting their licence.
Operators have blamed “unrealistic” requirements and a labyrinthian approval process. Kelab Rekreasi Pengasuh Malaysia president Siti Azha Yusoff told Bernama the government should tailor the regulations and requirements to the type of day-care service provided and not apply the same standard to every day-care centre.
Experts agreed there is a need to streamline the approval process and clarify the regulations and requirements.
“This is something (the government) will have to sort out,” said Christopher.
All these efforts will take money to become reality. Experts suggest that the governmnt look at various models from other countries and incorporate them into Malaysia’s system.
In the KRI study, Christopher and his colleagues suggested using models from the Netherlands, Finland and Singapore which provide either universal child benefits or subsidies for infant and childcare.
Christopher, who was the lead researcher in the study, said it is important to recognise the contributions of all caregivers, including grandparents or siblings who babysit and provide universal childcare benefits.
And as for the rich who need the subsidies least, he has an easy solution to make the assistance more egalitarian.
“Tax them,” he said.
Meanwhile, The Asia Foundation proposed several funding models involving parents, employers, charitable foundations and the government at the local, state and federal levels to support childcare centres, such as subsidies for parents of young children and tax rebates for employers. Local and state governments can waive fees, while foundations could provide targeted funding.
Shanthi and other experts stressed that the benefits of getting women to work by investing in the care sector are numerous; not only does it help economic growth but it will also help prepare the next generation.
As such, she said there should be a national strategy on investing in the care sector as the country deals with a labour shortage and heads towards an ageing society.
“You know, in the next Malaysia Plan, we should have a huge allocation for this sector because then it will bring a lot of women out to work ... And also for retired people to do some kind of part-time (caregiving) jobs,” she said.
“A lot of educated women with degrees – highly talented and qualified women – are not working. This is not right.”
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