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87th Session
Geneva, June 1999

Report of the Committee on Maternity Protection

Committee report
Proposed Conclusions

: Submission, discussion and adoption

The PRESIDENT -- We continue with the examination of the report of the Committee on Maternity Protection, which is contained in Provisional Record No. 20.

I give the floor to Ms. Samuel, Reporter of the Committee, to submit the report.

Ms. SAMUEL (Government delegate, Cyprus; Reporter of the Committee on Maternity Protection) -- It has been my pleasure to serve as a Reporter of the Committee on Maternity Protection.

The Committee was assigned the difficult task of developing new international labour standards on maternity protection which would revise existing standards, specifically the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), and the Maternity Protection Recommendation, 1952 (No. 95). This revision would, it was hoped, enable wider ratification of a Convention on this important subject, whilst at the same time ensuring effective protection and equality at work for the greatest possible number of women around the world.

The discussions took place under the very able chairmanship of Ms. Andersen, Government member of Denmark. She led the Committee with politeness, but also with firmness and fairness. The leaders of the Employers' and Workers' groups, two other quite remarkable women, Ms. Knowles, Employer Vice-Chairperson and Ms. Engelen-Kefer, Worker Vice-Chairperson, advocated very ably the views of their respective groups. In its discussion of difficult and sensitive issues, the Committee was greatly assisted by Ms. Dy-Hammar, the representative of the Secretary-General, and her team in the secretariat, who worked long hours to ensure that our Committee had everything it needed when necessary, and who provided expert advice. Valuable assistance was also provided by the representative of the Legal Adviser, Ms. Doumbia-Henry. I would like to thank all of them for contributing to the successful conclusion of this first discussion on maternity protection.

This was a Committee that was made up of persons with knowledge and experience in gender and equality, legal protection, social welfare and social security issues on the three sides -- Governments, Employers and Workers. It was therefore often a very technical discussion on the difficult and crucial issues relating to the forms, duration and timing of leave, the financing of benefits and different relevant aspects of social security systems. At the same time, maternity protection is an important social and human rights issue.

The Committee therefore had to find the right balance between issues relating specifically to maternity protection at work and broader issues relating to discrimination and equal opportunities, termination of employment, family responsibilities and part-time work, which have already been dealt with in other ILO instruments.

We were all very aware of the importance of the work entrusted to us in view of the fact that more and more women are in employment during pregnancy and after childbirth. The preparatory work of the Office, which was praised by all sides, contained useful indications of areas which might prove problematic.

Moreover, we all knew even before we started that the subject of maternity protection would provoke diverse opinions on how far regulations should go. For this reason it would be difficult for the Committee to reconcile all points of view. At the same time, however, I would like to emphasize that there was general agreement on all sides right from the beginning that we should indeed be working towards proposing both a Convention and a Recommendation.

This common sense of purpose, I believe, greatly strengthened us in our work. It is not to say on the other hand that there was a common approach on what kind of Convention was needed. The Employer members set out very clearly what they considered should be the nature of the proposed Convention when they compared the ratification record of the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), with those of the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), each of which had managed to achieve about 100 more ratifications than the Convention on maternity protection. They strongly favoured the non-prescriptive approach of the other two Conventions. This could be seen clearly from a number of their proposals which, as explained by the Employer Vice-Chairperson, focused on points of principle. Points of detail should, in the Employers' view, be dealt with in the Recommendation. They also stressed the need for a balance between the protection of a woman's safety and health, her job security during pregnancy and following the birth of a child and the protection of employers from undue monetary, operational and compliance burdens.

For their part the Worker members were anxious to avoid a deterioration of women's rights. They looked for adequate assurances in relation to issues such as income replacement during maternity leave and additional leave, and protection against dismissal of pregnant workers or nursing mothers. While they accepted the notion that flexibility was required so that new standards could be adaptable to the conditions in member States, they sought a Convention which would contain a sufficient degree of legally binding detail and be forward-looking enough for the next century. Legally binding commitments, according to the Workers, should be balanced with the interests of governments, enterprises and the women themselves.

Governments were also divided on this issue. I am pleased to be able to report, however, that the Government members showed throughout the debate that they were acutely aware of the different stages of development of economies and social security systems among member States as well as the important social, cultural and religious issues facing them in relation to maternity protection. Their conciliatory interventions deserve praise.

The report that you have before you details the deliberations held in the Committee. I will confine myself to highlighting some of the substantive issues that were debated. These included: the coverage of children born outside of marriage or adopted children; the scope of application of the new instruments and its extension to women in the informal sector; the distinctions between different types of leave relating to maternity; the need for a compulsory period of pre-natal or post-natal leave; nursing breaks and facilities for nursing; safety and health measures for pregnant and nursing women; and the sharing of leave within the family between mother and father.

On the very contentious issue of the coverage of children born outside marriage or adopted children, it appeared that it would be difficult to find a solution that could be agreed by all different societies. After an exhaustive discussion on these questions, I believe that we have found a solution that is acceptable to the greatest number. Children born out of marriage are very clearly covered by the proposed instruments, whereas the situation of adopted children is not spelled out.

We were acutely aware that a significant number of working women are in the informal sector or self-employed and have no maternity protection. At the same time, however, we were aware that the various types of protection a woman needs during pregnancy and after childbirth, especially leave, benefits and protection from dismissal, are meaningful only where there is an employment relationship with an employer, and in many cases are practicable only when she belongs to a social security system. The scope proposed by the Committee would exclude independent workers, but would include women working in the informal sector when there is an identifiable employer, unless those women are in a category of workers that a government has decided to exclude from coverage under the proposed Convention on the grounds that its application to them would raise special problems of a substantial nature. This will give the necessary flexibility to governments, especially in developing countries.

We also recognized and dealt with the problem that many women may not readily be able to obtain a medical certificate concerning their pregnancy which would entitle them to maternity leave. A more flexible solution allowing for a medical certificate or other appropriate certification as determined by national law and practice was finally agreed.

On the subject of the duration of maternity leave, it was decided that the minimum period should continue to be 12 weeks, but the members should also be encouraged, where practicable, to set a longer period. The possibility of this is set out in the proposed Convention, while in the proposed Recommendation a target of 16 weeks is suggested.

It was also decided that additional leave should be provided and paid for before or after maternity leave in cases of sickness or complications arising out of pregnancy or confinement. The issue of the rates applied to benefits was, as I am sure you can imagine, hotly debated. I would like to emphasize, however, that the debate centred upon the rates of benefit under different social security systems and on the conditions to qualify for benefits, rather than on the principle that a woman should be entitled to maternity benefits. As on so many other issues during our Committee's discussions, there really was a common commitment to this issue. The debate was often quite technical. As someone who is responsible for social security in my own country, I confess that I was surprised at how much I learned about different social security systems around the world and their implications for maternity benefits.

Just as there was unity of purpose concerning the principle of a woman's right to maternity benefits, so was there a common agreement on all sides that women should be protected from dismissal on grounds related to pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. There was of course considerable discussion on how to express this principle so as to give the greatest possible protection against discrimination in these situations, taking account of national conditions and practices. One of the issues discussed was the prohibition of pregnancy testing as a condition of employment, and we finally decided to move a provision relating to this from the proposed Recommendation to the proposed Convention. In general, on the question of employment protection and non-discrimination, our debate was easier and I believe richer precisely because we agreed on the basic principles involved.

Provision for nursing mothers was seen as a very sensitive issue by many members, especially because some such provisions had been included in Conventions on maternity protection since 1919. The great majority of members of our Committee, including the Employer members, endorsed the importance and benefits of breastfeeding and accepted the principle of nursing breaks, and were prepared to accept this principle being set out in the Convention. I expect that the discussion next year will see further debate over how best to express this right, taking account of the realities in different countries.

On the issue of parental leave and sharing of responsibilities between mother and father, it seemed this year that the time was not yet ripe for a majority of members to accept these as elements to be addressed in a Convention on maternity protection, although there was widespread support for inclusion of a reference to parental leave in the proposed Recommendation.

These were not easy discussions and the members of the Committee stated that there is a need for further work on the difficult issues in the next discussion. Again, the wisdom of having two Conference discussions on international labour standards seems to be confirmed in this case. The issues are presented to you for adoption now with the understanding that the ILO constituents will have a year to reflect on this matter. The Conference will then revisit maternity protection with renewed thoughts and vigour.

Ms. KNOWLES (Employers' adviser, New Zealand; Employer Vice-Chairperson of the Committee) -- The Employers' group can support the adoption of the report of the Committee on Maternity Protection and the proposed Convention and Recommendations for two reasons.

The first is that during the discussion over the last two weeks, issues of concern and importance have been debated, setting the scene for next year's much more important meeting when the Committee, hopefully, finalizes the instrument.

The second reason why we can support its adoption is that it is an interim report only. Those member States which read it carefully and compare its terms with their domestic legislation and with the previous Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), will no doubt come to similar conclusions as the Employers' group. In its present form the proposed Convention, supplemented by Recommendations, which in good faith countries which ratify the Convention must also strive to attain, is in our view unsustainable. That is, in the Employers' group's estimation even those countries which have ratified Convention No. 103 -- fewer than 20 per cent of the membership of the ILO -- may well find it difficult to ratify this instrument as it currently reads. The balance is not there.

There are two ways to set an international instrument, each option having been adopted by one of the two social partners in this debate. The Workers' group has supported an approach, based on legally binding detail and obligations, of prescribing exactly what countries must have in their domestic legislation if they are to conform with the Convention. The Employers' group, on the other hand, has taken the view that to be successful, to achieve an instrument that affords maternity protection at work in a form that can be widely embraced by the constituent Members of the ILO, then a principles-based approach must be adopted, setting out principles for adoption and promotion in each country according to its social and economic development and in accordance with its own national law and practice.

The Employers' group approached this task seriously. After all, it was the Employers' group which put it to the Governing Body that Convention No. 103 should be revised. Employers were concerned that such a fundamentally important instrument had attracted so few countries' endorsement. Maternity protection has always been high on the ILO's agenda. The first Convention in this area -- the Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No. 3) -- was passed the year the ILO was founded.

In the 47 years since the Convention concerning maternity protection was revised in 1952, only 37 out of the possible 174 countries have ratified it. As I have said, less than 20 per cent.

This low take-up comes as no surprise to the Employers' group, which has consistently railed against the prescriptive, inflexible nature of Conventions adopted. Time and again the Employers' group's warning that a Convention will not be able to be ratified by many countries because of the Convention's failure to take into account different national laws and practice has not been heeded.

Of the last 20 Conventions drawn up by the Committees of the International Labour Conference, the highest number of ratifications has been 23; the average is 7.5. The Home Work Convention, 1996 (No. 177), adopted three years ago against the Employers' group's warnings of unwarranted rigidities and inflexibility of detail, has been ratified by two countries -- Ireland and Finland. To my knowledge, neither of these two countries is internationally renowned for having large numbers of vulnerable people working from their own homes in need of protection.

It is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. So, what does the Employers' group want?

From our perspective, the discussion on maternity protection must focus on balance. There must be a balance between protecting a woman's safety and health and her job security during pregnancy and following the birth of her child, and protecting the employer from undue monetary, operational and compliance costs. I say "undue" advisedly. The operational and replacement costs to employers when women take maternity leave, let alone contributions to benefits, must not be underestimated.

Getting the balance wrong will not only produce yet another unratifiable instrument, but more seriously, may well have the effect of diminishing employment opportunities for women of child-bearing age. This last point was strongly supported in our Committee discussion by the spokesperson for 29 non-governmental organizations comprising the leading women's organizations in the world.

There is a further issue of balance that is particular to this issue. There are two distinct threads that run through the proposed conclusions -- one relating to removal of discrimination and the other relating to what are essentially social security benefits.

Obviously, anti-discrimination principles should apply universally to those in employment, but in most jurisdictions social security benefits for periods of maternity leave are targeted, that is, there are qualification periods dependent on length of service or payment into insurance schemes. There are exceptions relating to levels of earnings or status of employment. These threads, while apparently in conflict with each other, need to be woven together in an acceptable way if the fabric of the instrument is to be robust.

The Employers' group, in devising its position on maternity protection was, as our Reporter has already indicated to you, mindful in particular of the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), which has been ratified by 137 member States, and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), ratified by 132. The hallmark of those two Conventions is the promotional aspect they adopt without attempting to prescribe methods for achieving the outcome sought.

Assuming it was the wish of the Governing Body to promote such ratifiable instruments, the Employers' group suggested the deletion of points 6-13 inclusive of the Office's proposed conclusions, to be replaced with declarations of principle to which, we hoped, all three social partners could subscribe, adapted to reflect the domestic reality of each member State.

We proposed that: "Each Member for which this Convention is in force undertakes to declare and pursue a national policy designed to promote, by methods appropriate to national conditions and practice, maternity leave and protection for all employed women."

We provided for exclusions, after consultation with the social partners, for limited categories of workers and a recognition of eligibility criteria. Our proposal required these categories and criteria to be lodged with the ILO.

Our statement of principle was as follows: "As an indispensable means of protecting the health of any woman and her child, the woman's entitlement to a period of maternity leave, to protection from dismissal for reasons related to the pregnancy or maternity leave, with adequate means of supporting herself and her child, is the core element of this instrument."

We concluded our proposal with the point that in order to protect the position of women in the labour market, an employer should not be individually liable for the direct cost of any monetary maternity benefit to a woman employed by him or her, without that employer's specific agreement.

The Employers' group strongly commends that approach to all governments for serious consideration over the next 12 months -- because we were not successful.

What was adopted were detailed legal obligations. Prescription was included for compulsory leave, additional leave, cash and medical benefits, employment protection including a period following the woman's return to work during which she can take nursing breaks, to be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly.

Finally in the Convention is the requirement for a member State, regardless of the leave period and monetary benefits actually provided, to continue to examine the appropriateness of extending those benefits. The Recommendations supplementing the Convention recommend maternity leave of at least 16 weeks; cash benefits during maternity and additional leave to be raised to the full amount of the woman's previous earnings or such of those earnings as are taken into account for the purpose of computing benefits; a return to the woman's former position or an equivalent position, paid at the same rate; and parental leave to either parent following the expiry of maternity leave.

The Employers' group is committed to proper maternity protection for employed women.

The fact that women happen to be the ones who bear children and tend to be the ones who nurture them in their early weeks of life does not mean that all of the responsibility falls on women only. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that adequate protected leave is provided. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that the woman has an adequate level of support, from whatever source, for herself and her child during the period she is not working.

The responsibility is a shared one, as are the rights. All the rights cannot accrue solely to women.

Employers have the right to expect not to carry undue financial and compliance costs arising from an employee's maternity leave, and governments have a right to set national policy that reflects the social and economic expectations of the wider community.

If we do not achieve the correct balance, there will be no winners, only losers. The Employers' group strongly recommends to all member States that they use the time before the next discussion to examine closely the proposed conclusions and to participate next year with a very real commitment to ensuring that balance is achieved.

In concluding, I would like to express the thanks and appreciation of the Employers' group to the secretariat and to all those who made the work of our Committee run so smoothly. I would particularly like to recognize the Chairperson of the Committee, Ms. Andersen, and the Worker Vice-Chairperson, Ms Engelen-Kefer. I understand that our collective representation is a first for the ILO; that never in its 80 years has there been a time when women have held the positions of Chairperson and Vice-Chairpersons of a committee. Ms. Samuel, our most competent Reporter of the Committee, completed the all-female line-up.

I fervently hope it will not be the last but, indeed, the first time of many.

I would like to thank both Ms. Andersen and Ms. Engelen-Kefer and all Government members for the cordial nature of our discussions, and the constructive debate that took place while guided by our Chairperson, as we attempted to proceed in our different ways to the finalization of a document that will be the basis for a second discussion in the session next year.

The Employers' group trusts that in the year 2000 we will achieve our hopefully common objective of agreeing an instrument that affords maternity protection at work in a form that can be widely embraced by the constituent Members of the ILO.

Original German: Ms. ENGELEN-KEFER (Workers' delegate, Germany; Worker Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Maternity Protection) -- First of all I would like to express my thanks for the comprehensive and well-balanced report given by our Reporter, the Government representative of Cyprus. I think it demonstrates the richness of our work and its scope. I would also like to thank the Employer member, Ms. Knowles, for her report, which made it clear that we were not just having a chat over coffee, but that we hold some very tough negotiations with one another.

I would like to indicate here that I believe our drafts for a Convention and Recommendation are by no means a luxury but simply the basic maternity protection which women need. I think we all agree that it was necessary after so many years to produce a new text for these instruments, and that these texts should be in the form of a Convention and a Recommendation.

I do not think there is any dispute that the employment of women of childbearing age is continuing to grow and that in many households women earn a considerable proportion of the family income.

It is predicted that in the industrialized countries over the next ten years, 80 per cent (or in the world as a whole 70 per cent) of women of childbearing age are going to be working, and that over the past 50 years the working and living conditions for women have changed considerably.

New products and new production methods represent new potential health risks for pregnant women and their children. It is also undisputed that gender equality in professional and private life is increasing, and that many countries are promoting a partnership-based child-raising model where women and men, fathers and mothers, participate to the same extent. The number of single mothers and fathers is also constantly increasing.

If we look at all of this, it cannot be disputed that we need to update the international maternity standards. I think we also all agreed that this revision, in the light of the changes which have taken place, has to be balanced. This means that on the one hand there should be sufficient protection for pregnant women and their children and that on the other hand the significant economic and social changes in member States should be taken into account also, as well as changes which have taken place in domestic legislation on this issue.

Unlike the Employers' spokesperson, I feel we have managed to achieve a balanced draft Convention and Recommendation.

What have we done here? First of all, and we as workers are very pleased about this, the definition of women to be protected has been extended in these instruments. This was very necessary, because it was not simply a question of producing a new Convention for women in the highly developed countries where the legislation is often very good. What was particularly important was to create an instrument to help women and children in countries where the informal sector is very extensive, working in low-paid agriculture with high health risks or in small enterprises.

I think we did manage here to achieve a common definition able to overcome the various cultural and religious barriers. In these drafts we have a Convention and Recommendation which will cover women and children without discrimination. This fact made possible a majority for the further provisions that we put before you in these texts. The large majority gained will facilitate ratification and implementation at a later stage.

This majority consisted not only of industrialized countries or European Union countries. The drafts received majority support from the developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. So we have reason to hope that this will not remain an empty piece of paper containing nothing but a detailed set of rules, but that it will be, as of next year, a Recommendation and Convention which will find practical application.

First of all, we have established a time period for maternity leave of 12 weeks. If anybody thinks this is too much, they should be aware that this, in a slightly weaker form, was contained in the original form of the Convention: the Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No. 3). So there is nothing particularly revolutionary in what we have done here. What we did, however, manage to do, and I do think is good and I am proud of this as a Worker representative, was that in the text of the Convention we brought to bear a very concrete incentive for governments in a position to give women more than 12 weeks' maternity leave.

What else have we done? Nothing too serious. We have established in the Convention that it is not just a question of the normal period of maternity leave. Some women have problems, become sick, become unable to work or suffer from other complications. I do not think this provision is a luxury: it is simply a necessary calculation in view of real-life situations, and we want to protect women and children for time periods extending beyond the regular maternity leave of 12 weeks.

Many representatives of other organizations in our Committee approved another step we took, in drawing up arrangements for women to be able to nurse their children without suffering discrimination as a consequence. If this is a luxury, then I do not know what is meant by maternity protection. For us as workers, these are basic conditions which have to be dealt with in any Convention on maternity protection.

We have also tried in the Convention to provide a minimum degree of protection against dismissal, because it is not much use to have the best of maternity protection, if women cannot be protected from dismissal. So we have simply established that during the period of maternity protection, additional free time and nursing breaks taken by women workers cannot be used as a reason for dismissal. If this should happen, and the woman complains, it will be the duty of the employer to prove that there was no discrimination. I do not think this is excessive: it goes without saying, and it should be a part of any basic Convention on maternity protection.

We felt that paid nursing breaks ought to be brought into the Convention. We did not try to be too detailed or too perfectionist, and have continually made it clear that the individual regulations and the detailed embodiments would not be included in a Convention for the whole world. This should be dealt with by national legislation and practice, in consultation with the representatives of the workers' and employers' organizations.

So the text of the Convention before you in draft form contains basic provisions urgently needed to provide a minimum degree of maternity protection for women throughout the world.

As is usual in formulating Recommendations, we went slightly further. For example, we have included additional laws for health protection and employment protection. This also is necessary, and not just as a social matter. If we ensure that women run no health risks in pregnancy or following confinement, this is also in the elementary interests of the employers and the economy in keeping the workforce in good health.

The same goes for the regulations on women's income during maternity leave. What use is protection if women do not have a reasonable standard of living during leave? Again, it is no luxury to stipulate a minimum level to guarantee the security of women and children.

This is the basic content of the draft Convention and Recommendation before you. I believe they are well balanced. They take into account the changing conditions for women and their children and the differing situations of development in the various countries. I am convinced that they will allow coverage of the greatest number of pregnant or recently confined women and give them a minimum degree of protection.

That is what I hope, and I hope that between this year and next year, a great deal of contact work will be carried out. I will be contacting the Employers' representative so that next year, when we come to the final decision, we will really be in a position to come up with a meaningful and feasible text for a Convention and a Recommendation on maternity protection.

I would like to use the moments that remain to thank the Office representatives, who I think have done excellent preparatory work and have provided excellent support. Without this excellent work we could not have produced these results for the Conference.

I would also like to thank all the others in the Office who have supported us and particularly supported the Workers' group. Without their generous help, it would not have been possible for us to complete our work. I would like to also thank the interpreters and to ask their understanding and forgiveness: they have stayed with us throughout our lengthy, difficult and not always very successful discussions. They have done very good work. Without them, we could not have achieved the text we have before us. Once again, I would like to express my most sincere thanks, and I thank you all for listening to me at such a late hour.

Ms. ANDERSEN (Government delegate, Denmark; Chairperson of the Committee on Maternity Protection) -- I have listened with great pleasure to the Vice-Chairpersons and the Reporter, who have shown how interesting and difficult our discussions and negotiations have been. It has been a pleasure and a privilege for me to have served as Chairperson of the Committee on Maternity Protection.

It has been satisfying to see the genuine concern of governments, employers and workers develop new international instruments on maternity protection which take into account the fact that member States have different laws and practices regarding maternity protection, and are at different levels of development.

The discussions reflected the complexity of the issues, although our task was made easier by the goodwill and cooperation of the three sides.

Various suggestions were presented in an attempt to reconcile divergent views. However, this is just the beginning, and we have to be even more creative next year if we are to achieve our goal of developing international instruments which will be relevant for the century to come.

It is apparent that we have to look more closely into the type and form of the new instruments, their scope, and the question of additional leave, cash benefits, and employment security. Our Reporter, Ms. Samuel, covered these issues in greater detail during her presentation. Unless these issues are resolved, then, as some members of the Committee noted, the new instruments might pose problems of ratification.

The two Vice-Chairpersons, Ms. Anne Knowles and Ms. Ursula Engelen-Kefer, and all the members of the Committee have, through their active and constructive participation, enabled us to better understand the issues and provided an excellent basis for preparatory work before the second discussion next year.

I would also like to express my appreciation to the members of the Committee for their willingness to work long hours in order to finish the work within the time available.

During this first discussion, I must say, the secretariat has become very dear to me. The assistance I received has been both competent and friendly -- the cooperation one always wishes for, but only seldom achieves. Therefore, my warmest thanks go to Ms. Dy Hammar and her team, the Legal Adviser, the Reporter, Ms. Samuel, and the Drafting Committee. Last, but not least, thanks are also due to all those people who worked hard behind the scenes to facilitate our work -- the interpreters, the technicians, and those responsible for processing the report.

I look forward to working with you next year in the same spirit of cooperation and goodwill and hopefully with a good result.

Mr. POTTER (Employers' delegate, United States) -- I am making these remarks on behalf of Kaye Foster-Cheek, who is the United States Employers' adviser on the Maternity Protection Convention.

This statement is a tough statement by a first-time attendee to the ILO Conference, who represents the next generation of young women business leaders, and who works for a progressive United States company. Unfortunately, I am not able to convey Kaye's youthful figure and wonderful Barbadian accent, but these are Kaye's words.

As a first-time attendee to the International Labour Conference, it was with much optimism that I participated in the revision of the Maternity Protection at Work Convention. My optimism was reinforced by the new Director-General's quest for "win-win" and "cohesive, creative tripartism". The two weeks of negotiation on this Convention demonstrate that there is much work to be done to achieve his vision.

With the low level of ratification of the current maternity protection, due to member States indicating that the overly prescriptive nature of the existing Convention was a significant barrier to its ratification, the Employers' group approach was to negotiate a framework Convention based on broad principles. Our approach was based on the need to achieve consensus after constructive and, hopefully, instructive dialogue. Alas, this approach was resoundingly rejected by the Committee. Instead, what resulted was an even more prescriptive draft Convention than the existing one. We were constantly reminded that, since this was the first discussion, there would be ample time next year to revisit the draft provisions. Pardon my irreverence and facetiousness, but perhaps we can create an even more restrictive instrument next year.

As an international organization of some status, it was alarming to see that tripartism was not always managed in a constructive manner. For example, there were inconsistent and contradictory rulings on similar, if not equivalent, points of order. Also, the practice of permitting multiple, lengthy subamendments created confusion. Subsequently, when there was a request for an informal show of hands or a formal vote, delegates were frequently unclear on the substance of their vote. One wonders what the point of formally submitting amendments is, if an orderly process, permitting translations in the three working languages, can be overruled by anyone, by submitting a complicated oral subamendment.

Despite these criticisms and frustrations, this was truly an enlightening experience. My humble suggestion to the ILO is that there should be greater recognition of the problems and benefits of maternity leave protection for workers, governments and employers. It would be my hope that this would adjust the "noise level" concerning the need to balance the provision of greater protection of women and the related costs to enterprises and governments.

As I prepare to return for next year's discussion, I hope that we will have a more realistic social dialogue that will lead to a ratifiable Convention on maternity protection.

Ms. BERESFORD (Workers' adviser, New Zealand) -- The work of the Committee on Maternity Protection was underpinned by recognition of the crucial importance maternity protection has in ensuring genuine equality for women by contributing towards women's full participation in the wider labour market.

Much of the Committee strove to bridge gaps and cultures and differences in national priorities to contribute to a forward-looking Convention.

Collectively, we progressed well in some areas, and we stumbled in others.

The Committee, however, made real efforts, despite what we have heard perhaps earlier, to address what were possibly the two most unequivocally stated imperatives of participants, governments, workers and employers: firstly, to get the new century off to a positive start for women by developing a Convention that provided genuine maternity protection and, secondly, and importantly, to ensure this is done in the manner that reflected different delivery mechanisms within countries, and is not unnecessarily rigid or inflexible.

In this session the Committee has made modest improvements in a number of key areas: breaks for nursing mothers; protection against discrimination; extensions to the period of maternity leave; the adaptions of workplaces to ensure they are not prejudicial to the health of the woman or the child. However, much remains to be done.

In 1999, it is not something to be proud of that we have not yet advanced the modest 12 weeks' paid parental leave provided in the 1919 Convention. Nor is it, I think, anything to be proud of that the richest countries are among those who decline ratification most.

Together, we must strive to improve the lot of our citizens and not simply be content marking time, or even more unacceptably going backwards. Of course, the role of the ILO is to lead the world forward towards better and higher standards, and long may it take pride in discharging that role.

Undesirably low rates of ratification of the existing Convention, and undesirably low they certainly are, should be addressed by governments forthwith in the only responsible manner -- by ratification and by implementation, not by hand wringing.

Seeking to lower minimum standards and to justify that as a possible way to increase ratification is the wrong way to go. It will not work and, furthermore, fundamental principles like that simply are not tradeable.

All of us, workers, employers and governments, have a big challenge over the next 12 months, to revise the 1952 Convention in a manner that is truly progressive and befits the twenty-first century, that facilitates the use of all our human capital, women as well as men, and, of course, to ratify and implement the revised Convention in numbers that will be applauded by our children and by our grandchildren.

We all need to make good use of the 12 months ahead so that this time next year we can feel as proud of our work on maternity protection as we justifiably feel of it on child labour.

Ms. AMUGI (Workers' adviser, Ghana) -- Since this is my first time on the podium during this 87th Session of the International Labour Conference I want to congratulate the President on his election and on the efficient manner in which he and his team have handled the proceedings of the Conference.

The issue of maternity protection is a crucial one. Since child bearing is a social function, as other people have rightly argued, we can just imagine how the world will feel if women refuse to give birth. It is our concern that women should not be victims of discrimination in employment and thrown out of jobs, and those of child-bearing age should not be refused jobs.

It goes without saying that healthy mothers make healthy children which, in turn, spills over into a healthy and better developed society. Employment protection, nursing periods and maternity cash benefits are a few areas where we secured strong votes. Nonetheless, we had some opposition.

The positive effects of safe motherhood and child care cannot be overemphasized. We are again urging the house to consider the issue of adoption and adoptive parenting as a reality. The issue of discrimination against women and couples who decide to adopt children should not be sidestepped. We would therefore urge the house to look beyond religious and cultural barriers and give this problem due attention.

I would recommend that the report of the Committee on Maternity Protection be given a positive note when we come to look at it a final time, this time next year.

The PRESIDENT -- With that intervention we bring to a close our discussion on the report of the Committee on Maternity Protection.

We shall now proceed to the adoption of the body of the report itself, i.e. the summary of discussions in paragraphs 1 to 466. It also involves adopting the Proposed Conclusions and resolution submitted by the Committee.

If there are no objections I will take it that the report -- paragraphs 1 to 466 -- is adopted.

(The report, paragraphs 1-466, is adopted.)

Proposed Conclusions submitted by the Committee on Maternity Protection

We shall now proceed to the adoption of the Proposed Conclusions. If there are no objections, I shall consider them adopted.

(The Proposed Conclusions -- paragraphs 1 to 26 -- are adopted as a whole.)

Resolution to place on the agenda of the next ordinary session of the Conference an item entitled "Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), and Recommendation, 1952 (No. 95)"

We shall now proceed to the adoption of the resolution to place on the agenda of the next ordinary session of the Conference an item entitled "Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), and Recommendation 1952 (No. 95)".

If there are no objections, I take it that the Conference adopts the resolution.

(The resolution is adopted.)

We have therefore dealt with the report, as well as the Proposed Conclusions and resolution submitted by the Committee on Maternity Protection. I wish to thank the Chairperson, the Vice-Chairpersons, the Reporter and other members of the Committee, as well as the secretariat staff for the excellent work they have done.

Updated by HK. Approved by RH. Last update: 26 January 2000.