Maternity protection

A Century of maternity protection - An unfinished transformation

One of the ILO’s very first Conventions covered maternity protection, but while there is plenty of evidence that maternity protection is good for individuals, societies and economies, there is still a long way to go to ensure that this universal right is a reality.

Statement | Geneva | 08 November 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning,

Let me begin by welcoming everybody to this very special Centenary celebration. We are extremely fortunate to have with us today political leaders, thought leaders, passionate advocates from amongst our constituents and beyond supporting maternity protection for all women. It is wonderful to have a full room here. I am sure we are going to have a very rich discussion today with the diversity of representation and I am particularly pleased to see some of our Governing Body members – our Governing Body which finished last night. Let me also express sincere appreciation to our partners in the organization of this event – from Europe, from the UN system, and from civil society and academia. We are delighted to be partnering with them all.

It was exactly, this month, 100 years ago that the first International Labour Conference, which took place in Washington, D.C. after a month long deliberation, adopted six Conventions, amongst them was the Maternity Protection Convention No. 3. These were the first international labour standards and Convention No. 3 guaranteed the right to paid leave and employment protection in relation to childbirth. Interesting that after many years of preparation for the creation of the ILO these were the issues, which the world of work decided, were priorities for their attention.

It is perhaps hard for us to picture today, to imagine just how revolutionary this Convention No. 3 and its content was at the time. In 1919, let us remember, women around the world were still fighting for the right to vote. Their position in society was very much reflected in the make-up of the ILO, which was certainly a male bastion at that time, and we have the photographs to prove it of that 1919 Conference. And we still have a lot to do in terms of representation because even today, at our Centenary Conference this year, only 35 per cent of delegates were women so we still have some work to do.

Ladies and gentlemen, when the ILO was being given life through the Treaty of Versailles following the end of the First World War, women came together to advocate for a Convention on maternity protection. Through their expertise, diplomacy, tenacity and exceptional planning, including in the Women’s Labour Congress held just before the first ILO Conference, they succeeded. And since then the scope and entitlements of maternity protection have expanded progressively and that is reflected in the most recent maternity protection Convention, the third one, No. 183 adopted in the year 2000. There has also been a raft of other international labour standards that ensure the protection and recognition of women and parents’ rights in the world of work, and I make special mention of Convention No. 190 adopted this June on the eradication of violence and harassment at work.

Ladies and gentlemen, the women who helped bring the 1919 Convention to life understood very well that maternity protection is not just about granting paid leave at the time of and following the birth of a child. It is also about safeguarding employment and providing income security during and after the birth so that women have the chance of an equal footing with men in the world of work. It is about access to quality maternal health care that guarantees the well-being of mothers and their new-borns. Yet, 100 years later after that first Convention was adopted, maternity protection is still not universally enjoyed – far from it. Globally only 41 per cent of women with new-borns receive maternity benefits that provide them with real income security. That means more than 800 million – I will repeat the number – 800 million women workers around the world are not adequately protected and most live in Africa, in Asia and they are in the informal economy.

In addition, many women around the world still very much face the reality of discrimination, of violence and harassment based on pregnancy, maternity and their family responsibilities. And even after giving birth women endure motherhood penalties linked to employment access, wages and leadership opportunities, whilst fathers tend to reap a dividend.

And while we are proud that over 70 of our member States have ratified at least one maternity protection Convention, increasing ratifications would undoubtedly send a very important signal that maternity protection must be a universal right, and that it is an essential element in making decent work for all a reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, promoting and ensuring maternity protection, let’s be clear, it is just as important today as it was 100 years ago. It advances women’s rights, it advances their economic empowerment. It supports the reduction of the gender wage gap, women’s careers maintain momentum, and their wages grow at a faster rate if they have maternity leave and benefits.

It is also good for companies – by supporting maternity leave they are investing in the retention of their staff. To put it in other words, maternity protection is good for societies and it is good for economies as a whole.

It is with this in mind that in June of this year the International Labour Conference adopted the ILO Centenary Declaration for the future of work which, amongst other things, calls for gender equality at work, enabling a more balanced sharing of family responsibilities and a better work life balance, as well as investment in the care economy.

The Declaration calls for a transformative agenda so that we can achieve all of this and that means concrete solutions and a human-centred focus to address the challenges thrown up by our fast changing world of work.

While maternity protection is a key element of this transformative agenda, the right to universal childcare and other care services is most certainly a core component as well.

So on this very special day let me invite you all to celebrate, to celebrate what has been achieved but also to examine not only how far we have come since the adoption of Convention No. 3 but to think together about the travel that still has to be accomplished. So we invite everybody here to think together, as global leaders in the public and the private sector, of how we can work together to accelerate action on these vital issues.

I look forward very much to the discussions that will take place today and I want to let everybody know how much we value the partnerships which are in evidence in the hall today. They are vital components of the transformative agenda for gender equality to which our Organization is firmly committed.

Thank you for your attention.