More than 120 Nations Provide Paid Maternity Leave. Gap in Employment Treatment for Men and Women Still Exists.

Released exclusively in Geneva and Washington, D.C.

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Ms. F.J. Dy-Hammar — chief of ILO Conditions of Work Branch and lead author of the report “Maternity Protection at Work” — will be available for media interviews in Washington, DC on Friday, Feb. 13. To schedule a time, please call (703) 820-2244.

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More than 120 countries around the world provide paid maternity leave and health benefits by law, including most industrialized nations except Australia, New Zealand and the United States, says a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“In all parts of the world, working women who become pregnant are faced with the threat of job loss, suspended earnings and increased health risks due to inadequate safeguards for their employment,” says F. J. Dy-Hammar, Chief, ILO Conditions of Work Branch, who oversaw the report, Maternity Protection at Work.

In many countries, women’s job income is vital for the survival of the family, the report says. It finds that women provide the main source of income in some 30 percent of all households worldwide. In Europe, 59 percent of working women supply half or more of their family’s household income. In the United States, the figure is slightly less, 55 percent of working women. In India alone, an estimated 60 million people live in households maintained only by women.

In just over 10 years, 80 percent of all women in industrialized countries and 70 percent globally, will be working outside the home throughout their child-bearing years.

The countries that provide the most paid maternity leave by law include: the Czech Republic — 28 weeks; Hungary — 24 weeks; Italy — five months; Canada — 17 weeks; Spain and Romania — 16 weeks each. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all provide extensive paid leave which may be taken by either parent, although a portion is reserved for the mother.

In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provided a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for the birth of a child and the care of the newborn. FMLA applies only to workers in companies with 50 or more workers.

Some individual US states and possessions, however, do provide for paid maternity benefits, including Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, California, New York and Puerto Rico.

The ILO analyses how 152 member countries treat women of child-bearing age in both law and practice, and how these countries’ legislation compares to ILO international standards. The report analyses overall maternity protection at work, including maternity leave, employment protection, cash and medical benefits and health protection of mother and child.

Maternity Leave: The ILO created the first global standard in 1919 aimed at protecting working women before and after childbirth, the Maternity Protection Convention. The standard was revised in 1952 and now calls for a minimum 12-week leave, although a 14-week leave is recommended. In countries which provide cash benefits through social security, the ILO standard says that a woman should be paid at a rate of not less than two-thirds of her previous insured earnings, with full health benefits.

Currently, 119 countries meet the ILO standard of 12 weeks, with 62 of those countries providing for 14 weeks or more. Just 31 countries mandate a maternity leave of less than 12 weeks.

The advance notice required for taking maternity leave varies from country to country, the report points out. In Australia, federal legislation stipulates that a woman must inform her employer that she is pregnant and will be taking time off at least ten weeks before leaving. In Austria, a worker is required to inform her employer of her pregnancy and of the likely date of birth as soon as she herself knows, and is also required to inform the employer of the date that her prenatal leave will begin four weeks before leaving.

In Ireland and the United Kingdom, notification must follow a strict procedure or the woman could lose the protection of the courts in any dispute. In other countries, pregnant women enjoy greater rights — in Denmark, France, Greece and Italy, a woman automatically enjoys protection of maternity leave laws simply by becoming pregnant, no matter how and when the employer learns of it. In Finland, a woman is required to inform her employer only if she wishes to take leave more than 30 days before the expected date of birth.

In some countries, leave entitlement may depend on the number of children already in the family, the frequency of births, or both, length of service or working hours. In Nepal, a woman may take just two maternity leaves in her working life, and in Barbados, Grenada, Egypt, Jamaica and Zimbabwe, just three. In the Bahamas and Tanzania, women are allowed maternity leave only once every three years.

A minimum length of service with the same employer is the most common condition of maternity leave. Some examples include a minimum of three months of employment in Switzerland; six months in Libya, Syria (in agriculture) and Somalia; six months during the year preceding the birth in Egypt and the Philippines; one year in Australia, Bahamas, Jamaica, Mauritius, Namibia, New Zealand and United Arab Emirates, and two years in Gambia and Zambia.

Collective bargaining agreements between unions and employers often increase the leave entitlement, the report finds. In Spain, for example, 18,000 public school teachers in the Basque region receive 18 weeks maternity leave, two more than mandated by law, and 12,000 private school teachers in the same region receive 17 weeks. In Mexico, two major banks and a power company provide one to four weeks more leave than the 12 weeks mandated by law. In the United Kingdom, 85 percent of 240 different businesses surveyed in 1995 offered longer maternity leaves than mandated by law.

Employment Protection: The ILO says that an essential element in maternity protection is a legal guarantee to pregnant women and young mothers that they will not lose their jobs as a result of pregnancy, absence on maternity leave or the birth of a child.

The guarantee is an essential means of preventing maternity from becoming a source of discrimination against women in employment, Ms. Dy-Hammar says. “Loss of continuity in employment is a major handicap for women’s career advancement and is costly in terms of lost seniority and reduced pensions, paid annual leave and other employment-related benefits.”

In the United States, discrimination is prohibited against pregnant women, women at childbirth and women who are affected by a related medical condition, but only in companies with more than 15 workers. In addition, policies and practices in connection with pregnancy and related matters must be applied on the same terms and conditions as those applied to other temporary disabilities.

The ILO has found at least 29 countries, most of them in Africa and Asia, that have adopted laws that provide an absolute prohibition against the dismissal of a worker during maternity leave for any reason. These are Bahrain, Belize, Benin, Botswana Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Fiji, Gabon, Ghana, India, Israel, Lesotho, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Uruguay.

The ILO says that if the protection against dismissal is to be effective, it must also cover the period following the employee’s return to work. The actual period of protection varies considerably. In China, Haiti and Romania, the period of protection corresponds to just the nursing period, which is not further defined. The period of protection following maternity leave is 30 days in Belgium and South Korea, 12 weeks following birth in Côte d’Ivoire and Luxembourg, three months following the end of maternity leave in Cyprus, 16 weeks following birth in Switzerland, four months following birth in Austria, Ethiopia and Germany, five months in Brazil, six months in Hungary, nine months in Laos, one year following birth in Afghanistan, Angola, Bolivia, Greece, Mozambique, Somalia, Venezuela and Vietnam, and 15 months in Mali and Senegal.

Cash and Medical Benefits: The situation of workers who become pregnant shortly after beginning a new job is often precarious. Qualifying periods of 3 to 12 months of employment are frequently found in national laws and collective agreements with regard to access to benefits. Minimum contribution levels may be required to qualify for social security payments. Part-time and temporary workers may have difficulty meeting eligibility requirements.

“Without cash and health benefits, many women could not afford to take maternity leave, or might be forced to return to work before their health allowed,” says Ms. Dy-Hammar. In fact, a 1996 report to the US Congress on family and medical leave policies found that 100 percent of the women eligible for leave who did not take it said that they could not afford to.

The report finds that working women have made striking progress in receiving maternity leave paid through social security since the first ILO maternity convention of 1919, when only nine countries provided this benefit. The number rose to 40 by 1952, and to some 120 today. In other countries, employers are required to pay all or part of the benefits.

In many countries, the number of women entitled to maternity protection has increased mainly because of the extension of social security plans to women who were not previously covered, such as agricultural and domestic workers and the self-employed. In the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Finland, Philippines, Portugal, Slovakia and Tunisia, for example, self-employed women are protected under the same qualifying conditions, at the same level of benefits and payment as employed women. Belgium, France, Gabon, Luxembourg and Spain have set up special systems to protect self-employed women during maternity.

While paid maternity leave has become standard in most industrialized countries, progress has not been uniform. In Eastern European countries, previously extensive maternity benefits have been cut back due to economic restructuring, particularly cash benefits.

Where large numbers of women work in the informal sector, legislation affords little protection. In Colombia, 52 percent of working women are employed in the informal sector in Peru, 48 percent, and Poland, 10 percent.

In countries where social security systems are still weak, coverage is quite limited. For example, social security covers an estimated 5 percent of the working population in Benin, in Côte d’Ivoire, seven percent, and Cameroon, 10 percent.

Health Protection for Mother and Child: The ILO says that special workplace protections are required for working women because pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period are three phases in a woman’s reproductive life in which special health risks exist. ILO Maternity Protection Recommendation No. 95, adopted in 1952, prohibits night work, overtime and work prejudicial to the health of mother and child. Such measures seek to minimize fatigue, reduce physical and mental stress and protect women against dangerous and unhealthy work.

Three major trends have marked changes in law and practice concerning the occupational safety and health of pregnant women and nursing mothers since 1952, the report finds.

There has been a clear evolution away from generalized employment prohibitions for women towards more targeted protection for groups at risk, such as women before and after childbirth.

Another trend, closely related to the first, has been the move toward protective measures better adapted to the needs and personal preferences of individual workers at different periods in their working life, rather than imposing involuntary restrictions for wide categories of workers, such as women of child-bearing age.

There has also been a growing awareness of the impact of the working environment on reproductive health and of the negative outcomes to pregnancy associated with both maternal and paternal exposure to hazardous substances, agents and processes.

Beyond Childbirth: The report also analyses how countries are adapting to the needs of working families with legislation for parental, paternity and adoption leave. To date, just 36 countries, mainly industrialized ones, have enacted legislation governing parental leave. The Nordic countries offer the most attractive policies for working parents including compensation for loss of earnings and family allowances. Recent US legislation guaranteeing family leave is noteworthy, because though unpaid, it is gender neutral.

The report stresses that much still must be done: Maternity protection in the last half century has been marked by progress in law, an evolution in workplace practice and rising social expectations regarding the rights of working women during their child-bearing years, says the ILO report. Yet the gains registered have so far failed to resolve the fundamental problem experienced by most, if not all working women at some point in their professional lives: unequal treatment in employment due to their reproductive role.

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