Madam Speaker, this bill recognizes that equality matters for the promotion of family life. While it is important to continue to promote parenthood within the ambit of marital unions, there is a need to balance it with the recognition that not everyone is so fortunate to be able to sustain a happy marriage, or even obtain it. Economic pressures, relationship problems or errors of judgement may be to blame for marital breakdown or unwed pregnancies. But the most important thing is that children should not be published for the prejudices and mistakes of adults.
I believe that putting the well-being of the child at the centre of social policy affecting the family is the key to the balancing act. I therefore support this bill to equalize the various parental leave schemes for unwed and adoptive parents. Our children will stand most to gain from these equalizing moves. I would like to raise two issues.
Protect the Family Life of Contract Workers
First, protect the family life of contract workers. The economy is fast changing to what has been termed as the gig economy. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force Report last year, 11 per cent of our workers are employed on term contracts. This percentage will grow, as it is a worldwide trend for developed economies that are restructuring. It has been predicted that 40 per cent of workers in the United States will be independent contractors by 2020.
The profile of short-term contract workers is also changing. They are getting younger, possessing professional credentials and making the conscious choice to be term contract workers. In the coming years, more of the children benefitting from the enhanced parental leave schemes will see their parents working on term contracts. These parents, and their children, will need better protection of their entitlements for this legislation to be meaningful.
Employers have been known to avoid leave obligations by signing workers on contracts that are shorter than three months and renewing them with breaks in between. I am aware that the tripartite partners set up new guidelines in June this year where employers are encouraged to treat contracts renewed within a month as continuous and grant leave cumulatively.
In the short term, I urge the Ministry of Social and Family Development to work with the Ministry of Manpower to track whether employers are following the guidelines and to intervene when they are not, so that “encourage” will become “strongly encourage”. In the longer term, I ask that the Government enact comprehensive laws to better protect term contract workers, as this group is fast becoming a substantial group in the new economy.
Ensure Housing Security for All Children
Second, without housing security, parental leave can be meaningless. This is the biggest issue for divorcees and unwed single parents. Other than income security and retirement adequacy, housing security is a key foundation stone for our social security system. I cannot stress enough that having a secure roof over one’s head is crucial for the proper development of children. It is not just a physical need. This is an emotional need.
Children who grow up in a home that is more or less permanent will experience familiarity and love, while those who need to constantly move around will experience psychological stress due to the uncertainty of residence. Some studies have shown that for adults, moving homes can be more stressful than divorce and relationship breakdowns and changing jobs. What more for children who need the certainty in their environment to grow up nurtured and feeling secure.
The Ministry must be aware of the housing problems face by divorcees with custody of young children and unwed single parents with young children. Most often, these parents are women, who are thus faced with the dual roles of breadwinner and caretaker. Unwed single parents are not allowed to purchase a subsidised BTO flat because their family unit is not considered an eligible family nucleus. But what can be more nuclear than the parent-child relationship?
For the sake of the children, I urge the Government to expand its definition of family nucleus to include unwed single parents. Placing unwed single parents in the singles category, who can only buy a flat when they reach the age of 35, is a double whammy for the children. The Government is depriving the children housing security when they need it most at the very young age at the most crucial phase of their development. Not only that, by treating their parents as singles, the Government is also refusing to recognise the children and sending a terrible signal of shame to the children, who are innocent and should not suffer the sins of their parents.
It may be to balance against the need to promote parenthood within the ambit of marital unions, the Government would choose to make an exception for a parent regardless of marital status to apply for a two-room BTO flat at any age. I believe this will be an acceptable compromise balanced in the favour of the well-being of children.
For divorcees with young children, the problem is with hefty mortgage loans linked to the HDB flats that they co-own with their ex-spouses. Most will be compelled to sell their flat. Many will have to purchase smaller flats and their children will face the psychological stress of dislocation and relocation. Low income divorcees will be find themselves and their children in a terrible situation, as they will not be able to afford to purchase a flat and will not be eligible for a public rental flat until five years later. Economic disruption may become the norm, but we should keep disruption to family life minimal.
The problem may well be that the HDB flat has long been treated as the matrimonial home rather than a more inclusive definition of the familial home. I urge the Government to consider expanding its definition to fit with the times. We need to have the courage to change the social infrastructure to meet changing social structures and economic circumstances.
The Well-Being of Children as the Heart of Social Policy
We already have the family justice courts and the family justice paradigm placing the well-being of children at the centre of their work. The Ministry of Social and Family Development have made reforms that move in the same direction, as the previous and current amendments to the Child Development Co-Savings Act show. These are laudable moves and I support the Bill. But the work is only beginning and the reforms need to be holistic. I hope the Government would move next to tackle the housing issues. Thank you.