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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 22 October, 2014

Column: How to make parental leave work for dads in Ireland too

Journalist Philip O’Connor says the system of parental leave in Sweden, where he lives, benefits children, parents and the unemployed – and it is ideal for recessionary Ireland.

Philip O'Connor

THERE ARE FEW silver linings to be found in the most savage recession in modern times, but if we’re creative about it we might be able to wring something golden from the misery for Irish families.

One such way would be to take the opportunity to give fathers the chance to spend more time with their children by introducing a comprehensive reform of parental leave in Ireland.

Living in Sweden, I was lucky enough to spend a total of ten months at home with my two daughters, and I can safely say it was the best thing I’ve ever done. During that time I received around 90 per cent of my usual salary (80 per cent from the state, topped up by 10 per cent by my employer).

Under current circumstances there is no way that the Irish government or businesses could afford to mirror the generous Swedish system and give parents 480 days to split between them.

But what could be offered to fathers is the opportunity to take 60 or 90 days parental leave, to be replaced at work by someone on the live register. The obvious benefits to families are twofold – more men would experience what it is like to spend more time with their children, developing strong bonds with them and taking a more active role in the formative years of their children’s lives. For other families it would mean the chance for someone to get back into the workplace, even temporarily, to show what they can do and keep their skills sharp.

How payment is handled is a matter for government, employers and employees to work out, but there are a few obvious possibilities. The person on parental leave could have their salary reduced somewhat, with the difference added to the unemployment benefit paid to the person who would be replacing them.

I got my first real break in the Swedish job market this way

Any shortfall in income for the person on parental leave would be offset to some extent by a reduction in childcare costs during the period, thus rendering an effect that is close to neutral as possible on the household budget.

The effect for the unemployed person taking up the temporary role should not be underestimated either – in fact, I got my first real break in the Swedish job market when I did maternity cover for a girl having her first baby.

When given the chance, I worked as hard as I could to show what I could do, and when she returned I was kept on too – but if she had never had children I never would have had that chance. There would doubtless be a disruptive effect on businesses in the beginning as they sought to deal with a new system; there are key employees that are essential to the running of many organisations. But that too is a sign of weakness, and businesses need to learn to cope and become more resilient in case that person should become ill or find a new job.

Ultimately it is the benefit to the child that is most important., and the fact that they have a right to both parents. For the most part, children love their parents unconditionally, if not always equally. Such a reform of the system would represent the first step in redressing that imbalance.

This article first appeared on Philip’s blog, Ourmaninstockholm: Irishman’s reflections from Sweden.

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