Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Who Gets Maternity Leave?: The Case of Malaysia

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Who Gets Maternity Leave?: The Case of Malaysia

Article excerpt


Historically, employment conditions (wages, benefits, working conditions, hours) in the economy's formal sector have reflected men's experience as workers. Even though more women have been participating in formal sector employment, the employment conditions have not changed to reflect the women's experience as workers. These existing employment conditions therefore are gender biased. Men's social obligations are consistent with the expectations of workers in the economy's formal sector, but women's social responsibilities for child bearing and child rearing in general are not compatible with job requirements in that sector. The extent to which women have been able to secure and maintain formal sector jobs has depended largely upon their ability to subsume their family responsibilities to their employment responsibilities.

The majority of women in developing countries are not able to subsume family responsibilities to employment responsibilities and thus must work in the informal sector of the economy. The informal sector is characterized by the predominance of small-scale self-employment activities that are unregulated (Todaro, 1994, p. 253). Employment in this sector generally offers more flexibility in accommodating women's family responsibilities. However, the informal sector does have disadvantages. Employment conditions in the informal sector often are far less desirable than those in the formal sector, especially with regard to wages, benefits, and working conditions. Women have been willing to trade off those aspects of informal sector work for greater flexibility in terms of when and where they work so that they can both meet their family obligations and earn an income.

Women's responsibilities for biological and social reproduction represent barriers to their employment in the economy's formal sector. Government policies such as paid maternity leave and child care provisions therefore are important because they redefine employment conditions in the formal sector to reflect women's experience as workers and promote greater gender equality in the economy and in society generally. They explicitly recognize the value of the biological and social reproductive work that women perform, and they require the workplace to define employment conditions in ways that do not penalize women for their social responsibilities. Policymakers increasingly are recognizing these policies as basic components of any development strategy that is concerned with promoting gender equality.

Despite the existence of some form of maternity leave policy in most developing countries (United Nations, 1995, p. 128), the majority of women in these countries - those working in the economy's informal sector are not eligible for the policy. A different problem arises for those who are eligible. Barriers to implementing policy often exist. Given racial, ethnic, and class differences among women, some may benefit from the policy while others may not. In the case of paid maternity leave, for example, firms may attempt to circumvent the policy by hiring only unmarried women who they presume will be less likely to request paid maternity leave. In theory, a maternity leave policy promotes greater gender equality. In practice, however, such a policy may reduce inequality little or not at all. The question remains: Are women who are eligible for maternity leave actually receiving it?

This paper investigates the extent to which eligible women working in the Malaysian economy's formal sector have received maternity leave. Determining who gets paid maternity leave in Malaysia is a way of evaluating the policy's effectiveness. Malaysia provides an interesting case study for several reasons. It has had a paid maternity leave policy for approximately 40 years. It is a rapidly growing economy with rapidly increasing female labor force participation. The major sector of employment growth is the export promotion sector, which includes electronics and other manufacturing jobs in which women are heavily represented. …

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