According to Examination Yuan President John Kuan (關中), the nation’s falling birth rate presents a national security risk. In response, he has suggested that, as members of the civil service enjoy relatively stable living conditions, Taiwan should follow the UK’s example and change the current system — in which public servants are given unpaid "parental leave" (育嬰假) — to one in which people on parental leave receive their full salary.
Although Kuan’s comments are well-intentioned, he clearly has not quite grasped the nature of the problem. Further, the current debate on pension reform makes this a particularly sensitive time for such a proposition, with tension over the pensions of military personnel, state school teachers and civil servants.
The public might not look kindly on the suggestion that public servants should be allowed parental leave on full pay to encourage them to have children because they have relatively stable living conditions and a more suitable home environment in which to raise children.
By pointing out the benefits of providing parental leave with full pay to public servants, Kuan is hoping that private-sector employers will take heed and follow suit.
Of course, this would be a desirable outcome, but the question arises of where the money to finance this would come from. At present the nation does provide for parental leave, but this is a welfare benefit, not a paid salary. In other words, parental leave benefits are paid out of social insurance, not by the employer.
If this were to be paid by the employer, the only one that could afford to do so is the government, as it would fund it by increasing the national debt. Employers in the private sector could not afford to follow suit. And if it were to be paid as a state welfare payment, then it would come out of workers’ employment insurance, armed forces insurance or teachers’ insurance, meaning higher insurance premiums in the future.
Also, unemployment payouts would be coming from the same small pot as these parental leave benefits. Given the parlous finances of the nation’s social insurance funds, added to the weakened economy, it would not be easy to persuade companies, workers or public servants to pay higher premiums for the sake of parental leave subsidy.
The other point is that increasing parental leave benefits is not the answer to a falling birthrate.
Studies conducted by the Ministry of the Interior and the Department of Health point to the main cause of the decline being the cost of raising children.
This entails much more than just looking after a baby for the first six months or two years of its life. There is also daycare, kindergarten and after-school child minding. Very few people will change their plans for having children because of the provision of parental leave on full pay.
Political leaders need to understand the real reasons behind this demographic trend, and apply the country’s limited resources to provide quality, affordable public childcare and after-school child minding facilities for anyone who needs it. Then, more people will be willing to have children, freed from attendant economic concerns.
The proposition as it stands merely satisfies the needs of a minority, and only temporarily.
We approve of the fact that Kuan is trying to address the problem. However, someone in his position should make sure they have a thorough understanding of the issues before speaking out, and in a way that does not cause unrest within the current social context.
It would have been preferable had Kuan not announced a policy suggestion that benefits only public servants and risks exacerbating societal tensions.
Huang Sue-ying is director-general of Taiwan Woman’s Link.
Translated by Paul Cooper