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Maternity and paternity at work

Maternity protection makes headway amid vast global gaps

Despite progress in maternity benefits and a trend supporting paternity leave, an ILO report finds most women around the world are still not protected at work.

News | 13 May 2014
GENEVA (ILO News) – Most countries have adopted maternity protection provisions since 1919, when the ILO adopted the first Maternity Protection Convention, yet at least 830 million women workers still don’t have adequate protection, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said in a new report.

In its report, Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and practice across the world, the ILO said 66 countries out of 185 countries and territories have committed to at least one of three maternity protection Conventions adopted in 1919, 1952 and in 2000.

These Conventions stipulate the prevention of exposure to health and safety hazards during pregnancy and nursing, entitlement to paid maternity leave, maternal and child health and breastfeeding breaks, and protection against discrimination and dismissal in relation to maternity, as well as a guaranteed right to return to work after maternity leave.

  • 66 out of 185 countries and territories have ratified at least one of the three ILO maternity protection Conventions.
  • 53 per cent (98 countries) meet the ILO standard of at least 14 weeks maternity leave.
  • 58 per cent (107 countries) now finance maternity leave cash benefits through social security. Between 1994 and 2013 financing of cash benefits through employer liability fell from 33 to 25 per cent.
  • A large majority of women workers, around 830 million, are not adequately covered in practice, mainly in developing countries.
  • 45 per cent (74 countries) provide cash benefits of at least two-thirds of earnings for at least 14 weeks – an overall increase of 3 per cent since the last ILO review in 2010.
  • A statutory right to paternity leave is found in 78 of the 167 countries. Leave is paid in 70 of these, underlining the trend of greater involvement of fathers around childbirth. In 1994, paternity leave existed in 40 of 141 countries with available data.
  • 75 per cent (121 countries out of 160) provide for daily nursing breaks after maternity leave.
The report compares national laws in 185 countries and territories with the most recent ILO standards.

“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 the report’s co-author, Laura Addati, Maternity Protection and Work-family Specialist from the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch.

Regarding health and safety, 111 out of 160 countries have laws on dangerous or unhealthy work affecting pregnant or nursing women and 78 set out explicit prohibitions against such work.

Positive shift in length of leave

In terms of maternity leave, no country has cut its length since 1994 and there has been a gradual shift towards leave periods that meet or exceed the 14-week ILO standard.

Only two of 185 countries and territories provide no statutory cash benefits during maternity leave and more than 100 countries now finance benefits through social security, reducing employers’ contribution.

When it comes to discrimination protection, all but 20 of 165 countries had explicit prohibitions against discrimination during pregnancy and leave.

Exclusions from protection

Despite overall strides, maternity discrimination persists in all countries, the report said. Around the world, most women, numbering around 830 million workers, still do not have adequate maternity protection in terms of leave and income security around childbirth.

Almost 80 per cent of these women work in Africa and Asia where some groups of workers are excluded from protection in law and in practice. This is often the case for self-employed, migrant, domestic, agricultural, casual or temporary workers, and indigenous and tribal peoples.

These are also the regions where employer liability schemes are more prevalent, informal work is predominant and maternal and child mortality ratios are still very high.
“In order to have gender equality, you must have maternity protection. 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, childcare and other work-family policies come in,” said Shauna Olney, Chief of the ILO Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch.

Upswing in paternity support

In addition to maternity protection legislation, many countries also have measures to support working fathers.

Of 167 countries studied, 78 stipulate a statutory right to paternity leave, which is often paid, underlining the trend of fathers’ greater involvement around childbirth.

Leave provisions for fathers are most common in developed economies, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Paternity leave is paid in 70 out of 78 countries where there is entitlement.

Next steps

The report urges governments to adopt and implement inclusive laws and policies for effective protection, noting that assessing gaps in current frameworks is a first step.

However, the report recommends that employers should not have to bear the full cost of benefits: “Pooling resources through social insurance or public funds and social care services takes the weight off employers and it also promotes non-discrimination at work,” said Olney.

  • Make maternity protection and work-family measures universal and make eligibility criteria inclusive.
  • Provide essential maternal health and income security around childbirth as part of basic social security guarantees.
  • Prevent and eliminate discrimination against women and men with family responsibilities, including through labour inspection and compliance services.
  • Reduce cost of maternity benefits on employers via collective pooling through social insurance or public funds.
  • Create a supportive workplace culture by extending options for work-life balance, such as flexible work arrangements, to all employees.
  • Support gender equality through the provision of high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare services.
  • Enable the equal sharing of family responsibilities between women and men.