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Paternity Leave: ‘Nobody is talking about the indirect costs’

Yasmine Bourgeois, a member of the Zurich city parliament for the centre-right Radical-Liberal party.

Switzerland doesn’t need two weeks of paternity leave, says Radical-Liberal politician Yasmine Bourgeois. The mother of three says if the proposal is accepted on September 27, left-wing groups will keep asking for more and more.

As a mother who is not only against paternity leave but who is a member of the opposition committee, Yasmine Bourgeois is something of an outlier in the current campaign. And she has met with some hostility because of it. While her personal circle backs her, the Zurich politician says she is seeing some “pretty heated comments” on social media.

Within her centre-right Radical-Liberal Party, meanwhile, debate on the issue has gradually faded. But only after it proved to be a strong bone of contention. Although most female members were in favour of the two-week paternity leave proposal, the party ultimately decided – by a slim majority – to support a “no” vote on September 27.

Bourgeois, a member of Zurich’s city parliament, is against leave for fathers not out of loyalty to the party, but from conviction.

“In my view, introducing an additional paternity leave [on top of existing maternity leave] has no added value,” she says. She maintains that fathers-to-be already have the option of planning holidays ahead of time, since the birth of a child doesn’t generally come out of the blue.

Moreover, “most fathers should find it worth their while to do so,” she says.

Outdated models

On the right, the Radical-Liberals weren’t the only ones to be divided by the issue. The People’s Party, the biggest group in parliament, is also backing a “no”. But some of its female members are dissenting, including the high-ranking Céline Amaudruz, the party’s vice-president, who has come out in favour.

As so often happens with social and political issues, there is a clear rift between the German-speaking and Latin (i.e. French- and Italian-speaking) parts of Switzerland. For her part, Bourgeois doesn’t want to see paternity leave raised up as some general yardstick for measuring equality.

“People say we are clinging to an outdated model. But the opposite is true: paternity leave cements the image of a conservative family. A model where fathers slip back into their old routine after two weeks of paternity leave is outdated. Today, every family can decide for themselves who works how much and who takes on what amount of childcare.”

The economic view

Bourgeois is also a strong supporter of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). She believes they will lose out if the left-wing proposal is accepted. “It’s simply the wrong moment,” she says. “Our social services are in bad shape, many are already struggling because of the coronavirus.”

While larger companies might be able to cope with the additional expenses, she’s convinced that paternity leave would pose serious problems for businesses at the smaller end of the scale. Even now, employees and employers can work together to find a solution that suits everyone, she says. “It’s in every employer’s interest to ensure that workers are happy.”

With her husband running his own business and dealing with such matters on a daily basis, Bourgeois has seen such problems first-hand. If an employee is absent in a small company, it’s sorely felt.

“There has been a lot of debate about covering the direct costs of paternity leave, but nobody is talking about the indirect costs,” she says.

Off their own bat

For 16 years, Bourgeois has been working 50% as a primary school teacher in Zurich. Her seat in the city parliament, meanwhile, is her first political mandate apart from representing the Radical-Liberals on the local education board.

Her husband is also politically active, as a member of the cantonal parliament for the same party. At home, the division of tasks works well and is fairly equitable, Bourgeois says. Her husband also pitched in when the children were born.

“Off his own bat,” she emphasises. “Being self-employed, it wasn’t easy for him to take time off. There are things that just don’t get done, and you have to weigh up how important they are. But that’s the way it is. When you have children, you have to go without certain things.”

She is convinced that there are already enough ways for parents to organise themselves so they can get back to work. With childcare and help from grandparents, most needs can be covered, she says.

An 18-week holiday?

Switzerland is one of the few countries within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that hasn’t introduced paternity leave. But Bourgeois doesn’t see this as a problem.

“We have other privileges instead,” she says.

Her fear is that “once paternity leave is here, it will be expanded and expanded.” In Spain, she says, what began as two weeks of paternity leave will reach 16 by next year. In canton Zurich, meanwhile, the Social Democrats have already submitted a proposal for 18 weeks’ joint parental leave.

Translated and adapted from German by Julia Bassam & Domhnall O’Sullivan

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