Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the Ministerial Statement on Government’s Plans in Our Continuing Fight Against COVID-19 Pandemic.
Sir, I join many Singaporeans in thanking the government for the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets. The support measures introduced will help ensure that we can all get through this pandemic and, most importantly, get through it together.
I’m thankful that the concerns of those on unpaid leave or reduced salaries have been addressed through expanding the COVID-19 Support Grant to help this group of Singaporeans.
I’m thankful we are proposing to help the SMEs with rental waivers and allow tenants to repay their arrears through installments.
I’m also thankful for all the hard work by MOM, the other government agencies and NGOs who have worked tirelessly to help our migrant friends. Our migrant friends have worked hard to build, clean and maintain Singapore as the shining red dot we are today. I’m glad we have not left them behind and have committed to improving their living conditions.
I raised all these concerns in my previous speeches and I’m thankful to everyone who has taken the time to share your concerns, feedback and suggestions with me. Thank you for speaking up.
Sir, we have given a lot but as I raised in my previous speeches, there is one more thing we need to give.
We can and we need to give time. Time for working parents to spend with and look after their young children during this difficult period.
Introduce a COVID-19-related childcare leave
During this pandemic, many parents are feeling the stress of trying to balance work and looking after their children, especially helping their young ones with home-based learning (HBL).
As Zack, a parent, shared with me, “Imagine working from 9am to 6pm. Reached home about 7pm. Have dinner until 7.30pm. And only having this time, 7.30pm to 9pm, to check on kids HBL. Kids must sleep at 9pm to ensure 9 hrs of healthy sleep. Super tiring. Yet we endured for the sake of our children”.
Many parents are especially worried about how they will cope with alternating weeks of HBL for non-graduating students.
It will be difficult for parents who are unable to work from home. Who will look after their children? Not everyone has grandparents who can help, and even for those who do, they might not be able to help during this period.
Another parent shared with me, “I have two primary school going kids. P1, P2. Who is available to guide them on HBL days during phase 1? Grandparents aren’t computer literate. If there isn’t any HBL + Google meet + video call, I will choose to deposit them at my parents house easily. If I have to take annual leave to guide their HBL, employer won’t allow.”
I know Minister Ong has stated, “schools will be prepared to extend limited care to young students on HBL but without childcare arrangements”.
It will also be difficult for parents who work from home. They are expected by their bosses to be equally productive and meet challenging deadlines, even as they try to give their young ones attention and guide them on HBL. Do they please their employer or their children?
I know firsthand how difficult it is. For the past 2 months, I’ve worked from home with 3 little ones who had HBL. Ella is now 6 years old and Katie and Poppy are 3 years old. You can’t leave them to do HBL on their own. It’s impossible.
They have also attended many of my Zoom work meetings, climbed on my shoulders when I’m clearing emails, and pulled my hands and legs, wanting me to play with them, when I’m drafting speeches. This happened when I was drafting this speech last Saturday.
Parents truly appreciate this opportunity to work from home. As Zyen, another parent, shared, “WFH with an infant is really no joke. Always have to work till midnight to complete the work. But I do, really cherish and appreciate. I‘ve been there when she flip, sit up by herself and now standing with support. Gonna miss this bittersweet timing”.
Sir, more than anything, parents feel guilty that we can’t give our children the attention they need even though they are right there in front of us.
I’m not the only one with kids climbing on my shoulders. Amelia shared that, “My son climbs onto my shoulders while I work too. I feel guilty for being impatient with my daughter when she asks questions or wants to share something with me while I’m rushing my work”.
I know there is no easy solution, especially during these difficult times. I know employers are equally stressed.
But we need to give parents some breathing space and help them balance both work and family commitments.
It is good that the government has asked employers to be more empathetic to the challenges working parents face but we need to do more than that.
We cannot leave this important issue to the discretion of the employer. The government needs to step in to help and to mandate like how we have in so many areas in tackling this pandemic.
We need to remember the issue does not just stem from alternating weeks of HBL. What about parents whose children are required to stay home because they are exhibiting COVID-like symptoms? Many preschools rightly ask a child to go home if he or she shows a single symptom. But a lot of parents are affected because of this.
An educator in a childcare centre shared with me that, “On the ground, parents tend to negotiate with teachers if teachers were to reject children from entering the school due to respiratory symptoms with reasons that they are unable to get leave from work or no one to take care of their children”. Some parents, “would suggest to teachers to keep children at the sick bay the entire day until the parent end work”.
Let’s not forget that there are also school closures due to a positive COVID case, Leaves of Absence or Stay-Home Notices?
As I have previously stressed, our current childcare leave entitlement is already insufficient during a regular year.
Now, in this most irregular year, how can parents possibly have sufficient childcare leave?
The only option left for many parents is unpaid leave. Indeed, many parents have shared that they are doing just that, but in this business climate, parents fear losing their jobs if they continue to take unpaid leave.
To help parents, I hope we can introduce a government-paid COVID-related childcare leave for parents whose children need to stay home due to COVID-related issues.
By calling for it to be government-paid, this would ease the financial burden for employers whom I know are equally stressed.
Sir, this leave is critical for those who are unable to work from home. This includes parents working in essential services who perform a duty for our nation, who keep us safe. We need to make sure they are looked after too.
For parents who are working from home, this COVID-related childcare leave can help take off the pressure of balancing competing work and childcare responsibilities. They can take this leave when needed, such as helping their child catch up with HBL and their school work.
What other countries are doing
Sir, we will not be the first country to provide a COVID-related childcare leave. Other countries have already taken steps to help working parents facing childcare challenges as a result of this pandemic.
In the US, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expands paid leave options for working parents who are unable to find childcare arrangements, entitling them up to 12 weeks of partially paid family leave. This includes parents working from home.
Businesses whose employees take this leave pay for it through a refundable tax credit administered by the Department of Treasury.
In Canada, working parents are entitled to job-protected leave of absence for up to 16 weeks under federal law, allowing parents to attend to childcare and eldercare needs while protecting them from being fired or penalised.
In Italy, the government extended annual parental leave by 15 days for parents with children aged up to 12 years.
In Belgium, the government introduced a special parental leave for parents of children under the age of 12 where parents can take leave in the form of 1/2 of 1/5 reduction of working time. This means working half time or one day off a week, taken in any combination of weekly or monthly blocks.
Other countries have adopted a variety of measures – tax credit, protection against discriminatory firing, increase in annual leave and flexible leave. I believe some combination of these solutions would provide our working parents the support they desperately need.
Sir, in conclusion, we cannot leave it to employers and employees to work out amicable arrangements to balance business needs with childcare needs in this difficult time. In this difficult time, the government has to step in. We should; other countries have already done so.
I hope the government will consider introducing a Government-paid COVID-related childcare leave and provide it at least until the end of Phase 2 of the re-opening after the circuit breaker.
Many parents are calling for this and I hope the government will support them.
“Spend time with those you love, one of these days you will either say I wish I had or I’m glad I did.”
Let’s give our working parents the time they need to spend with their children during this pandemic and let’s all value the precious time we have with our loved ones.
Sir, I support the Budget and together, we will beat this virus. Thank you.
Watch the speech here