Government proposals to extend maternity and paternity leave in Hong Kong may have been welcomed by campaigners but it could be years before new mums, in particular, benefit from any changes.

In her maiden policy speech earlier this month, chief executive Carrie Lam included proposals to increase the length of paternity leave, from three to five days, following the completion of a review by the Labour and Welfare Bureau.

“In recent years, the labour sector and the women’s sectors have also proposed to improve maternity benefits of female employees,” she said.

“On the premise of balancing the needs of working women on the one hand and the affordability of enterprises on the other”, Lam said the government would commence a study on the extension of maternity leave.

Current government guidelines dictate that statutory maternity leave entitlement for a pregnant female employee in Hong Kong is 10 weeks, as long as she has been employed on a continuous contract for not less than 40 weeks immediately before the commencement of the scheduled maternity leave.

However, it is unlikely that changes will take place any time soon. Following the speech by Lam, secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong warned that it would take at least three years for the government to increase the duration of maternity leave, reported the Hong Kong Free Press.

Speaking on a radio programme, he said that three years was an “optimistic” and “reasonable” time frame, as it would involve changing laws and administrative arrangements, adding that extending maternity leave would be more difficult than paternity leave, as it would have a much more significant effect on employers.

“Given the UN’s recommendation for Hong Kong to extend its maternity leave in the last Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) review, we are encouraged by the government’s commitment to undertake a study on the enhancement of maternity leave and their review of the Labour Bureau’s suggestion of extending paternity leave from three to five days,” said Fiona Nott, chief executive of The Women’s Foundation.

“In the meantime, we encourage private sector companies to take the lead in ensuring their leave policies are in line with the international standard of 14 weeks, and to consider adopting parental leave policies to encourage the role of active parenting for both men and women,” she said.

There have been calls for the region to increase the length of its maternity and paternity provision for a number of years, although there are a number of organisations that now offer more than the statutory requirement.

In March this year, Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong) Limited announced that it would be increasing its fully paid maternity leave and paternity leave, to 20 calendar weeks and two calendar weeks respectively. Last year, HSBC increased its maternity leave to 14 weeks and paternity to two weeks.

Mercer’s 2016 Global Parental Leave report suggested that countries across the Asia-Pacific region are less likely to offer maternity leave benefits that go above the statutory minimum required, compared with the global average.

However, Hong Kong was noted as the highest performing country in Asia in terms of the leave it offers new mothers, with 56 per cent of companies exceeding the minimum requirements.

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