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Maternity leave only the beginning of public sector's advantages

It is past time that the Government addressed the blatant inequality in maternity leave between private and public sector employees.

Once this blatant disparity is remedied then we can move onto the more complex and important national conversation about the broader competition between private and public sector - and what that means for Samoa’s future as an economy. 

We applaud a call by the Falealili West Member of Parliament, Aumua Isaia Lameko this week, to equalise maternity leave benefits between Government and private sector employees.

Currently, women employees in the Government sector receive eight weeks in fully paid maternity leave.

Those in the private sector receive only four.

These rates are already, by comparison with those being offered by our neighbouring Pacific economies, too low. 

But there is another conspicuous unfairness here: taxpayers are underwriting a system that entrenches yet another unfair advantage to this country’s public sector and the disadvantage of the privately employed. 

The benefits of paid maternity leave are vast and wide; they benefit society as a whole. 

They are more likely to keep women in work, which makes workplaces, in general, more competitive and, therefore, better. 

And the benefits of allowing women to spend more time with their children without being forced to return to the workplace have also long been proven beyond doubt.

There is absolutely no reason that mothers working in private enterprise should be provided fewer benefits than those working for Government Ministries paid for by taxes, including on businesses. 

Fiji recently increased the number of paid days offered to mothers to 98.

The country got it precisely right when it required the Government refund 150 per cent of these women’s salaries be provided back as tax refunds, in recognition of the fact that, by offering such leave, private companies are offering a public service. 

Samoa currently has these principles backwards. 

But the inequities in Samoa’s current maternity leave schemes arrangements do not stop only at the amount of payments made to women. 

Other requirements such as that a woman remain in a job for 12 months prior to her being eligible to apply for and receive leave, as required in federal labour laws, are not contained in the public service working conditions manual. 

(They  may be enforced by managers but the fact that they are absent from the policy meant to be governing these conditions manual speaks volumes). 

It is also probably a fair estimate that the public sector maximum period of maternity leave of 26 weeks leave is something about which women employed in the private sector could only ever dream. 

The Minister for Commerce Industry and Labour, Lautafi Fio Purcell, responded to Aumua’s question by saying that the nation’s entire labour laws are under review. Standardising public and private sector conditions and some of the other concerns raised by Aumua were, Lautafi said, part of that review

We applaud the Minister for taking the initiative on change. 

We can only hope that that the result eliminates an inexplicable disparity. 

But while an increase in maternity leave is important of its own accord, there is a bigger issue in the inequality between Government and private sector workers that is much bigger than this. 

The public sector in this nation has been growing at a substantial rate while the rest of the economy has stagnated.

A report carried in last weekend’s paper (“Government defends public sector surge”) showed that, on the Government’s own figures, the number of Government employees in this country has increased over less than a decade from less than 6500 to nearly 11,000 according to official statistics provided by the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Labour. 

In the meantime, there has been no corresponding increase in the size of our population or the growth of our economy.

Cynics and opposition figures say that a Government job is a good way to win a voter’s political loyalty.

The Government, meanwhile, argues that the mandate of the public sector has increased substantially in that time period, along with the number of projects it is undertaking. There is no doubt some truth to this explanation, but is it enough to explain an increase in job numbers of more than two-thirds?

Public sector employment is crowding out our private sector. 

Public sector benefits and salaries are making it difficult for private-sector employers to compete. This is at the expense of the sector of our economy that contributes to rather than takes from the economy’s taxation revenue. 

A conversation about whether the track Samoa is headed along of becoming a public-sector dominated economy and all the risks that entails is long overdue.

The playing field is already hugely uneven and to the disadvantage of the private sector. 

Reforming laws that are openly tilting the balance in the Government's favour is the very least we can do. 


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