Mr. Maternity

Likud MK Sa'ar argues maternity leave is step toward economic success.

pregnant 63 (photo credit:)
pregnant 63
(photo credit: )
As Likud faction chairman and with three successful years of experience as coalition chairman prior to the 2005 elections, MK Gideon Sa'ar could choose any number of hot issues to take on. But although the sharp-tongued attorney admits to trying to keep updated on all of the relevant topics in the political arena, he has carved out an unlikely niche for himself as a prominent advocate for the rights of working women. During the summer session, Sa'ar, together with partners in the coalition and opposition, managed to push through their first reading two bills that he believes could go far to improve the status of women in the workplace, and subsequently in Israeli society. Sa'ar is no newcomer to the field of women's issues. In the last Knesset, he served for two years as the chairman of the Committee on the Status of Women, where the challenges posed to working women - and particularly mothers - took center stage. "The topics that first of all touch upon equality between men and women are close to me," Sa'ar explains in a rare moment of personal reference. "In the last Knesset, as cabinet secretary, I established the governmental committee for the status of women. Within the Knesset committee that I chaired - which in and of itself was rather exceptional - the thing I emphasized was the work market. "Equality can't be absolute because there is a difference - partly as a result of nature, because men don't get pregnant and don't give birth, and partly because of societal structures that have been in place for many years, such as different expectations of parental obligations. Our societal goal should be a bridge of equality that stretches above the differences and that will allow for real equality. Ultimately, that real equality will involve confronting the problems - problems are not simply the problems of women but of young families in general." One of the tools that Sa'ar advocates in helping achieve that equality is the extension of maternity leave. In 2007, he and Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich succeeded for the first time in 53 years in raising the period of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 14 weeks. In 1954, when the original Law for Women's Employment was passed, Sa'ar explains, the idea of granting 12 weeks of paid maternity leave put Israel at the front of the column in terms of progressive legislation on the subject. But in the ensuing five decades, it fell behind, with more and more Western countries legislating increasingly progressive and creative laws. Within Europe, only two countries currently have parental leave programs shorter than 12 weeks at 100 percent funding - Liechtenstein, which grants eight weeks of maternity leave at 80% of the woman's salary, and Turkey, which grants 12 weeks, but only at 66.7%. To find other countries with maternity leave policies similar to those which existed here prior to May 2007, one would have to look in places such as Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Gambia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Guatemala. And - as Sa'ar himself is quick to point out - the United States, which does not guarantee paid maternity leave for any specific period. Sa'ar and Yacimovich teamed up again in the recent Knesset session to try to raise the bar further - this time to 16 weeks, which Sa'ar believes is close to the ideal. "I don't support extremely long maternity leave, nor do I believe in short ones. In fact, the same effect is seen at the two extremes. When maternity leaves are extremely short or extremely long, they encourage mothers to stay at home," he says. "When the leave is too short - especially but not limited to the first child - and mothers feel that it is too short, they tend to either give up on their workplace entirely or they go out on unpaid leave, which is a difficult option for a young family. Sixteen weeks, I think, is the correct answer, but it was clear that we couldn't do it in one step. In the previous step, I offered 13 weeks, but when the government opposed even that, I raised my proposal to 14 weeks." He is quick to argue that extending maternity leave is not just a leg up to young families, but also, in a bigger picture, goes far to support the economic positions of the Likud. "We need to go in the direction of encouraging mothers to go out and work. From a macroeconomic viewpoint, this is the right thing to do. In the end, it is what differentiates emerging economies from advanced economies and it is what differentiates families which can get economic stability from those that can't, because we have passed the age of the single wage earner in a family as a model that can be an option for most people. "I came to the understanding that 16 weeks is the goal that we must strive for. That is to say that its not so extreme as to cut off the woman from her workplace, but also not from the baby. There is an internal logic because ultimately short maternity leaves place dilemmas before mothers as to what to give up. And I think that today the right economic viewpoint - both social, but also economic - is to try not to force women to stand before those dilemmas but to offer them tools to deal with them. "On the macro level, this will allow greater participation in the workforce, which has great economic advantages. To those people who ask how women can miss 12, 14, 16 weeks of work - it is a fact that in all those European countries where maternity leave is longer, the rate of women's involvement in the workforce is much more significant than in Israel." But despite Sa'ar's economic argument, the Treasury was still not convinced. In the last days of the summer session, just as the bill to raise maternity leave to 16 weeks was being prepared for its first reading, Sa'ar and Yacimovich were told that the draft economic arrangements bill for the coming year reduced maternity leave back to 12 weeks and also would reduce the initial grant provided by the National Insurance Institute (NII) at the occasion of each birth. "These grants are already tiny sums that do not come close to covering the expenses when a baby comes into the world after the first child," Sa'ar complains. "And so ultimately we must decide what message the government is sending. Are we a country that encourages birth, or are we a country like China that wants to forcibly reduce the birthrate?" The fact that the bill to extend maternity leave to 16 weeks passed in the shadow of the Treasury's threat to turn the clock back, Sa'ar believes, reinforced the fact that public - and political - sentiment supports the increase. He acknowledges that the legislation is undoubtedly a budgetary law, but argues that the funds come from a well-funded NII. But regarding birth-related leave, Sa'ar is not certain that simply extending the length of leave for mothers is a catch-all solution. In the 2007 legislation, MKs sought to widen possibilities for parents by allowing fathers to take leave for the last weeks of the period, on condition that the mother consented and that the two parents' leaves did not overlap. "We need to work on a more advanced format regarding paternity leave. Today there are all kinds of thoughts about how to push this forward," Sa'ar says, adding that a recent check revealed that fewer than 200 men chose to take advantage of their right to paternity leave. "When the partner takes birth leave as well, it is a statement about more equal parental involvement, and we need to think about the correct models for this and to look at what models already exist in the world. Six months ago, we approved continuing the current arrangement, but it is possible that this is not necessarily the correct relationship. Israel is very conservative regarding the division of rules in the family," he added. Among current fields for improvement, Sa'ar says, is that under current laws, neither the day of birth or the day of circumcision are guaranteed as days on which the father receives paid leave. Sa'ar has already instructed his staff to prepare draft legislation that will entitle fathers to leave days in those cases, describing the current situation as "strange." A second piece of Sa'ar-sponsored legislation, which also passed its first reading during the summer session, seeks to provide tax credits to help cover the cost of child care for families in which the mother is employed. In this case, as well, Sa'ar argues that there are powerful economic arguments in favor of the legislation. "When a woman doesn't go out to work because what she'll pay for child care is more than or equal to the amount that she can earn, a number of things happen. First of all, it makes life hard for the young generation, which is the generation that must bear the weight of the country on its shoulders. Second of all, we are making life difficult for women because after the children are older and they can return to work around the age of 35 or 40, it is very hard to be reintegrated in the workforce after spending years at home. Once again, this lowers participation in the workforce and it is the Treasury that every year says that the main macroeconomic problem is the low level of participation in the employment market." Ultimately, Sa'ar argues, the increased involvement of women in the workforce will generate more than enough tax revenue to make up for that lost through the tax credits. With his party currently polling in the lead should general elections be held in the near future, Sa'ar has been holding talks with other Likud leaders, including chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, to enlist their support for his bills. Thus far, Sa'ar says, he has met with success. In a party known for economic reform, Sa'ar is selling a hot product, one that he promises will help build the family and improve the position of women in society, while maintaining the reformist economic policy of the Likud. (The writer, The Jerusalem Post's Knesset correspondent, gave birth to her first child, a boy, this week... shortly after finishing this article.)