One day late last month I met the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand Jon Åström, who has invited me for a one-on-one meeting. For half an hour, Ambassador Gröndahl did not try to sell more Gripen fighter jets (I am not Prayut Chan-o-cha or the air force chief) or more IKEA furniture (I already bought a few bookcases) but tried to convince me that it would be best for Thailand to adopt right to parental leave for male employees and government officials.
He said this is an investment and Sweden, arguably one of the happiest societies on Earth, invested in it for nearly fifty years now, or since 1974 to be exact.
“Parenting should be a teamwork,” Gröndahl said, adding that “it’s equally important for the child to have to [early babyhood] bond with both parents.”
Gröndahl said over the months ahead, he will try to sell the idea to Thai legislators and senior executives at major Thai companies. In fact, the embassy already held a public event last month to acquaint the Thai public about parental leave, a right that the ambassador said has no exact Thai-language term.
The Swedish ambassador was correct. We only have a word for maternity leave. It is called la Lloyd (ลาคลอด), which literally means “a leave to deliver a baby” and it implies that only women deliver a baby.
Twelve Swedish companies in Thailand, including IKEA, are now serving as examples and leading the way, though Gröndahl hopes more companies in Thailand, including Thai companies will join sooner than later. The ambassador himself took six months leave to help his diplomat wife care for their daughter 14 years ago.
“It was one of the best times in my life,” the ambassador said, speaking at his Scandinavian modern office on Sukhumvit Road. “It was nice to have a break from work. I learned a lot. I was fortunate to have a couple of male friends. They were also on paternity leave,” he recalled, adding that they met at a walk for a walk.
The Swedish ambassador said enable his wife to make an easier return to work, also about women emancipation and a healthier society. “I think our marriage benefited from this… I do strongly believe that you create a bond even if [your baby] doesn’t remember.”
Being a journalist as I am, I told Gröndahl that must have been a difficult side to paternity leave, right? “You get exhausted by simply constantly have to watch over someone… I was tired sometimes and I did not get much sleep?”
Ambassador Gröndahl is currently on his summer vacation as I write this article, but he vowed to try to convince Thai firms and organizations to adopt paternity leave when he is back in Bangkok, even for one month leave, like IKEA in Thailand, during the second phase of his push.
“I guess there are sectors that would be easier. May be state entities… SMEs should be encouraged… It might have an initial cost but [one gets] happier employees.”
I asked if this is a directive from Stockholm for him to be evangelical about parental leave and whether there is a hidden agenda. “There is no hidden agenda. We [in Sweden] truly believe it is good for everyone. There is no commercial angle to this… There is no personal instruction from Stockholm.”
I let Gröndahl spoke for half an hour although I was sold even within the first 10 minutes of our encounter. This does not mean I have no reservation, however. Many Thai companies and government organizations will likely see it as a loss of productivity and income – a zero sum game.
Some may argue Thailand is not wealthy enough to be able to afford such “luxury” as labor right. But again, our rights to annual leave and even weekends were not granted by employers outright but part of a class struggle. It is also about convincing employers to see the big picture and invest long-term.
We will have to see which Thai organization, private or public, will be sold. The ambassador in fact had recently met with the popular new Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt. May be the governor can try a pilot project? What about those big Thai corporations that love preaching corporate social responsibility (CSR)? How about the Ministry of Human Development?
I rang IKEA Thailand up to hear about their experience in the kingdom after my meeting to the ambassador. Christian Dassonville, Country Human Resource Manager at IKEA Thailand told me 35 Thai male staff have benefitted from the company’s paternity leave right since 2017.
“They don’t really expect when they joined the company. It is something they really appreciate,” said Dassonville. “We don’t force them. It is not an obligation. We are really trying to create an environment where both genders are treated equally. That creates a lot of loyalty and really made a big difference.”
Dassonville then gave a final sale pitch which was most appropriate for IKEA. “We believe the home is a very important place.”
I asked Dassonville what he thought of the chance Thai companies adopt paternity leave right. “I do believe that the one month should be something the [Thai] companies could absorb, work wise,” he said, adding he is not without Hooe but it will take time.
Roengchai Yenkhuntos, 34, a sales supervisor at IKEA Thailand was one of the staff who took fully paid paternity leave. He told me his in laws were surprised when learned about it. “I told then this is my right. He helped his wife, a university lecturer to laundry clothes and other things. It makes for a happier employees.”
Roengchai then sent me a few happy photos of him, his wife, and baby taken two years ago. “It helps balance life and work.”