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Maternity protection: Not just a personal issue

Many countries have ratified ILO conventions on maternity protection, but pregnant women still face workplace discrimination. Marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), the ILO publishes guidelines on how to implement maternity protection policies.

Feature | 23 November 2012

GENEVA (ILO News) – Six months into her pregnancy, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Liani* to endure hours of standing at her production line job in a plastics factory in Indonesia.

Her back ached and her body felt weak with tiredness, but with no special provision for pregnant workers, she had to continue.

Night shifts were even worse: Since the company does not provide transport, the only way to get to work along the bumpy road between her home and the factory, was on the back of her husband’s motorbike.
Case studies
  • In Italy, at least 800,000 female workers said they were forced to resign for getting pregnant, mainly after being made to sign undated resignation letters when they were recruited. The letters were used when the companies wanted to fire them. 
  • In Kenya, some women are forced to sign agreements promising that they will not become pregnant.
  • Female cleaners in Honduras are regularly asked to take pregnancy tests either to get a job or to stay in work.  

“In October, I was six months pregnant,” she told ILO News. “One day I felt sick and I asked the company for leave time to go to the doctor. In the night the baby was born. It lived for two hours.”

“The doctor told me afterwards that it was because I was too tired. I was standing for too long at work and on the way to the factory on the back of the motorbike, the road was very broken and bumpy. It affected my pregnancy.”

Liani’s experience is not uncommon. She says another woman at the factory died in childbirth. The baby did not survive.


A problem in all types of countries

Around 70 countries have ratified at least one of three ILO conventions relating to maternity protection. But the reality is that many pregnant women and new mothers are still vulnerable in the workplace.

Discrimination against them is happening in rich, poor and middle income nations, and it has worsened with the global economic crisis, says Laura Addati, the ILO’s Maternity Specialist.

“With the economic crisis, there has been an increase of discrimination complaints. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. They tend to suffer from discrimination at work because of the idea that maternity is a liability,” Addati explained. “But the fact is that maternity protection produces enormous benefits.”

Discrimination claims
  • The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission in Canada says that one in ten workplace complaints of discrimination is related to pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy-related discrimination claims in the United States have jumped by 35 per cent in the last decade.
  • Since 2001, US courts have paid out $150 million in damages in pregnancy discrimination cases.
ILO research has uncovered cases of women being harassed and sacked after becoming pregnant, women being made to sign pledges that they will not become pregnant, being forced to undergo pregnancy tests by their employers and being denied paid maternity leave.

In some parts of the world, pregnant workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals which could harm the foetus or, like Liani, have to stand all day and work night shifts because no special provisions are made for them.


Impact on development

To tie in with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the ILO, in collaboration with a number of other UN agencies, has published guidelines to help organizations, government ministries, workers and employers organizations strengthen and extend maternity protection to women at work.

The aim of such protection is to preserve the health of the mother and her new baby and to provide economic security for the women and their families. This can be achieved through maternity leave, cash and medical benefits, health protection in the workplace, employment protection and non-discrimination, and breastfeeding at work.

But it is not just about helping individuals, said Addati. Maternity protection has a significant impact on development, and research shows that it is of benefit to employers as well as employees because it helps companies and organizations retain valuable staff.

Disadvantaged women
  • A UK study found that 22,000 women said they had been disadvantaged at work because they were pregnant or took maternity leave.
  • Two-thirds of young Arab women remain out of the workforce because of weak gender discrimination laws and lack of childcare solutions.
“Maternity protection is important in the fight against poverty, social inclusion, gender equality and maternal and child health. There is a link between the level of spending on family friendly policies, the level of employment of women and the level of child poverty,” Addati said.

“That’s why maternity protection is not just a personal issue. It helps achieve a number of global development goals, so we are talking about collective responsibility. Governments, employers and workers need to work together in a social dialogue so we can find solutions that meet the needs of all parties.”

* not her real name

Tags: maternity protection, gender equality

Regions and countries covered: Global, Indonesia

Unit responsible: Department of Communication (DCOMM)

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