In 2010, only 8.7% of working mothers in South Korea took maternity leave. This offers a clear picture of the reluctance women who work in the private sector are showing toward their leave rights. The Sexual Equality Employment Act emphasizes fair treatment through provisions stipulating that the maternity leave period should be included in a worker's amount of continuous service, but in reality working women are hesitating to use their leave out of concern over various repercussions.
Now, the flames of the debate are being fanned by the Ministry of Government Legislation's authoritative interpretation of the criteria for a Level 1 certified librarian. The Ministry concluded that a woman's maternity leave period could not be counted toward her work experience as required for a change in rank, since she was not actually working during that time. Not only does this interpretation present potential for conflict with the provisions of the Sexual Equality Employment Act, but it also goes against the interests of society, where infant care is an essential part of society’s health.
The ministry has explained that its interpretation is confined solely to the issue of a worker moving from Level 2 to Level 1 certified librarian status and bears no connection with promotion or compensation as stipulated in the Sexual Equality Employment Act. But this is nothing more than self-justification that ignores the discrimination women face in workplaces over maternity leave. Of the 300 counseling cases that came to Korean Womenlink's employment equality counseling office last year, some 12% were appeals related to unfair treatment in connection with maternity leave, including layoffs and improper personnel placement practices. There is ample potential for the Ministry of Government Legislation's interpretation to be used as a basis for prejudice against women who take maternity leave.
The maternity leave system is essential for continued growth and improved quality of life in South Korea. In 2010, the country's total fertility rate, indicating the number of children the average woman was expected to bear over her lifetime, stood at 1.23, the lowest among the OECD's 34 member nations. The country also placed 30th in terms of women's economic activity, with a 54.5% rate. These issues will never be resolved without active support and encouragement for maternity leave. The Ministry of Government Legislation needs to reconsider its interpretation, which is very likely to draw criticisms as an anti-childbirth policy. And the government and private sector alike should be taking proactive steps to encourage the use of maternity leave.
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