Justifiable concerns

Last week, this column dealt with the issues raised by the possible extension of maternity leave. Various economic and political agents have put forward several types of reservations. Two of them were approached here then: affordability, on the one hand, and the current state of the local economy, on the other. In both cases we argued there were no sufficient grounds to avoid or postpone the decision. Two additional weeks of leave, unpaid, do not amount to a significant cost, no matter how one measures it. And the current status of the economy is still extraordinary by most standards. In sum, the issue is, and has always been, primarily a political and ethical one. It should be recognised, however, that a third argument, the plight of small and medium enterprises (SME’s), deserves deeper scrutiny. Some are already stressed by a number of other factors. Additional stresses, however minimal, might be felt strongly. There is something in that argument but it needs to be further refined. First of all, not all SME’s are the same. Quite a number of them are part of larger groups. Nominally, they are independent units; in practice, they are branches of some kind of conglomerate. These SME’s should face no big difficulty in dealing with any inconveniences brought by the new leave terms, if approved. Their group would easily absorb any additional costs and operational impact, which would be small in all likelihood. Really small companies, like small family and neighbourhood shops, or independent young entrepreneurs trying their luck in the world of business, would be prone to feel the pinch. But then, for those comparatively small cases, it would be easy to assess the impact and design specific support policies, which would hardly make a dent in the region’s finances. As a matter of fact, for SME’s the maternity leave costs pale in comparison to other costs they already face. Those matters – commercial rents, availability of labour, wage costs, administrative delays – are arguably putting much stronger strains on really independent SME’s and taking them to the edge of survival. Rents have reached levels that are simply unaffordable by most types of small family or independent businesses. The monotony of the business landscape in some parts of the city is a testimony to that. The vagaries of labour policy and blue-card quotas, in a city with virtual full employment, may easily become a continuous headache for any manager. Besides, most simply cannot afford to compete with casinos and its satellite operations in terms of wages or workers’ benefits. Insufficient staff, both in effectives and skills, will be a predicament for many SME’s, much more worrisome then any new mother’s absence. And what to say about the sluggishness of many bureaucratic procedures, not to mention the quirks of this or that public department? Those sincerely concerned with the state of SME’s have a long list of topics they can focus on before getting on to the costs and inconveniences of two additional weeks of maternity leave. Unpaid.