Protections for Workers Giving Birth Vary Greatly by Country, ILO Reports

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By Rhonda Smith  

June 5—The vast majority of approximately 830 million female workers worldwide—80 percent of them in Africa and Asia—don't have adequate protection for maternity leave and related income replacement, according to a report released by the International Labor Organization May 13.

“While our findings suggest that many countries have adopted the principles of maternity protection and support workers with family responsibilities in their laws, lack of protection in practice remains one of the major challenges for maternity and paternity at work today,” said Laura Addati, maternity protection and work-family specialist with the ILO's Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch and co-author of the report Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and Practice Across the World.

One-Third of Nations Commit to Maternity Protections

Out of 185 countries and territories for which information on maternity and related topics is available, 66 have committed to at least one of the three maternity protection conventions ILO has adopted since 1919, the original in that year followed by new conventions in 1952 and 2000. The conventions detail protective measures for pregnant women and for women who have recently given birth, including measures on the prevention of exposure to health and safety hazards during and after pregnancy, entitlement to paid maternity leave, maternal and child health care and breast-feeding breaks, protection against discrimination and dismissal in relation to maternity and a guaranteed right to return to work after maternity leave.

All but three of the jurisdictions studied provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave.

“The three exceptions are Oman, Papua New Guinea and the United States, all of which provide some form of maternity leave but have no general legal provision for cash benefits,” the report said.

More than 100 countries now make maternity benefits available through their social security systems, which reduces the employers' contribution, the ILO said.

Mixed Benefits

The report found that, contrary to expectations, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 helped boost support for families in some countries, even in the face of public spending cuts.

Fiscal consolidation drives led countries such as Estonia and Lithuania to decrease periods of maternity and paternity leave or the level of benefits, the ILO said, but only temporarily.

“However, many countries actually raised the level of support to families during the crisis in the form of access to early childhood education and care and tax credits, as well as increases in the duration, scope and levels of benefits for maternity and parental leave,” the organization said, citing Australia, France, Germany, Norway, Poland and Slovakia as examples.

In countries such as Greece, Latvia and Romania, on the other hand, “reduction[s] in the level of the minimum wage or weakening of the system of collective bargaining due to new laws following fiscal consolidation measures resulted in an erosion of the level of maternity benefits,” the ILO said, and maternity discrimination continues globally even though the majority of countries on which information is available have explicit prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination. There are reports, for example, of the use of “blanket resignations” in Croatia, Italy and Portugal—undated resignation letters workers are required to sign when they are hired that can be used to fire them if they become pregnant or are faced with a long-term illness or family responsibilities.

Longer Maternity Leave

Among the 185 countries and territories studied, 98 (53 percent) meet the ILO standard of providing at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, and 42 of those countries meet or exceed the suggested 18 weeks of leave.

“The longest average statutory durations of maternity leave are in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (almost 27 weeks) and the Developed Economies (21 weeks),” according to an ILO policy brief released with the report. “The shortest regional average is in the Middle East (9.2 weeks).”

In 2011, China increased maternity leave to 98 from 90 days, the report said, and Chile increased postnatal maternity leave from 18 to 30 weeks, while El Salvador increased income compensation from 75 to 100 percent during the 12-week maternity leave provided working mothers.

Paternity Leave More Common

There have also been positive developments in paternity and parental leave schemes, the report said.

“[T]o have gender equality, you must have maternity protection,” Shauna Olney, chief of the ILO's Gender, Equality and Diversity branch, said in a statement. “And if you don't have equality at home, it will be an uphill battle to have it at work. That's where paternity benefits, [child care], and other work-family policies come in.”

Provisions for fathers are found most frequently in developed economies and in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to the report. In 2013, Australia introduced 14 days of paid paternity leave, Norway extended its paternity leave to 14 from 12 weeks, and Singapore began offering one week of paternity leave with 100 percent salary replacement for Singaporean nationals.

Going Forward

To enhance maternity and paternity protections, the ILO recommended that countries and territories:

  •  make maternity protection and work-family measures universal and eligibility criteria inclusive;
  •  provide essential maternal health and income security as part of basic social security guarantees;
  •  prevent and eliminate discrimination against women and men with family responsibilities;
  •  reduce the employer cost of maternity benefits by pooling through social insurance and public funds;
  •  create a supportive workplace culture by extending options for work-life balance to all employees;
  •  support gender equality through the provision of high-quality, affordable and accessible child-care services; and
  •  enable the equal sharing of family responsibilities between women and men.
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    To contact the reporter on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington at rsmith@bna.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com

    Text of the ILO report is available at http://op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=rsmh-9kaqsk and the policy brief at http://op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=rsmh-9kblqy.