Babies and parents mobilise for 26 weeks’ paid parental leave

While mothers around the country will be enjoying breakfast in bed and cards from their children tomorrow morning, a Mother's Day card with a difference has been created in a Parnell park for Prime Minister John Key.

In Alberon Reserve, near Key's home, a group of parents and their babies from the "26 for Babies" coalition mobilised on Wednesday to advocate for Government-funded parental leave to be extended from 18 to 26 weeks.

The protest picnic was the first in a series of nationwide events put on last week by unions and advocacy groups, under the umbrella of the "26 for Babies" coalition, to mark this week's second reading of the member's bill to extend paid parental leave (PPL) to 26 weeks. The bill passed its first reading in September last year but after the vote, a spokesman for Finance Minister Bill English said if the bill got through to its third and final reading, the Government would be required to use its power of financial veto against it because the policy has not been budgeted for.

Labour MP Sue Moroney, author of the bill, and Jacinta Fa'alili-Fidow, manager of Auckland University-based TAHA Well Pacific Mother & Infant Service, spoke in favour of the bill at the Parnell picnic and mothers and babies created a giant Mother's Day card for Key, calling on him to implement the additional eight weeks' PPL.


The Government increased the entitlement of 16 weeks to 18 weeks on 1 April this year, having already increased it from 14 weeks last year, which now puts it on a par with Australia. An eligible Kiwi employee receives PPL payments equal to their normal pay but this is capped at a current maximum of $516.85 per week before tax.

Australia has offered 18 weeks since 2011 but other countries offer substantially more. In the UK, eligible employees can take a total of 52 weeks' parental leave, 39 of which are funded. The first six weeks are paid at 90 per cent of average weekly earnings (AWE), and then the lower of 90 per cent of AWE or $139.58 (less tax and national insurance) is paid out for the remaining 33 weeks. In Sweden, a generous 16 months of PPL is offered, with the first 13 months covering nearly 80 per cent of full pay.

New mum Asha Boswell counts herself lucky to be living in the UK. She is a London-based Kiwi and her baby Frank has just turned 18 weeks. As a British citizen, she is taking the full 52 weeks' entitlement from her job as a radiographer and says this is financially possible only because the first 39 weeks are funded.

"It would be hard to imagine having to return to work at 18 weeks, because Frank is still such a little baby," she says. "We're still establishing a routine and if I went back to work now I would have to give up breastfeeding. And I'd be exhausted." Without family back-up in Britain, Boswell would have to take time off work and use sick leave or accrued overtime to look after Frank if he fell ill. She says it would be unthinkable to put Frank into a creche at this stage because the only person she has left him with so far is her husband, and then only for short periods.

"Going back to work at 18 weeks would definitely affect my bond with Frank," she says, "and it would be so hard knowing he would be spending most of his awake time with a stranger."

The World Health Organisation and the New Zealand Ministry of Health both recommend babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months (26 weeks) to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Depending on a woman's employer and workplace provisions, returning to work at 18 weeks can make it difficult or even impossible for her to continue to breastfeed for the last eight weeks of that recommendation.

Moroney says the additional eight weeks of support her member's bill provides gives parents the chance to spend vital weeks with their babies. "The evidence shows [the additional eight weeks] will support important changes in their brain development. Between 18 and 26 weeks, babies are undergoing huge development such as beginning to laugh, starting to eat solids and sitting up by themselves. All parents want to be at home to share these milestones."

Parents lucky enough to work at companies like Coca Cola Amatil and My Food Bag receive more than the statutory paid leave. Coca Cola Amatil provides an additional six weeks of PPL on full pay, and My Food Bag recently announced it would allow all new parents and primary caregivers, including dads, an extra 18 weeks of PPL.

After the first reading of Moroney's bill passed in September last year, the Government reportedly put the cost of extending PPL to 26 weeks at $150 million a year. Moroney said the cost would be more like $285 million over three years.

The Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Woodhouse, defends the Government's decision not to increase PPL to 26 weeks. He says the National-led Government is committed to helping children get a good start in life and ensuring New Zealand's parental leave framework better supports families.

"We have always said we were prepared to extend PPL in a way that is affordable - and that's what we are doing. Not only was PPL increased to 18 weeks in April, eligibility was extended to include non-standard workers and primary carers other than just biological or formal adoptive parents. The new parental leave provisions better reflect the diversity of the modern workforce and family arrangements, provide more flexibility, and support parents' attachment to work," he says.