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Labour rights

Breastfeeding in the workplace: Good for the mother, child, business and society

On the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7), the ILO maternity protection specialist, Laura Addati, explains why breastfeeding in the workplace makes good sense for all parties concerned.

Analysis | 05 August 2013
GENEVA (ILO News) – Global efforts to promote breastfeeding in the workplace are starting to pay off, with more than 65 per cent of countries around the world now having some sort of legislation entitling mothers to either remunerated nursing breaks or a daily reduction of working hours.

Combining work and breastfeeding is not only possible but also essential for both mother and child."
But nearly a quarter of all countries still do not provide breastfeeding breaks in the workplace – especially in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean – and this is something that needs to change, says Laura Adatti, the ILO’s maternity protection and work-family specialist.

“Legal information from our maternity protection database shows that increased efforts are needed to convince governments, employers – and sometimes even workers – that combining work and breastfeeding is not only possible but also essential for both mother and child, as well as for business and society as a whole,” she tells ILO News.

Having access to paid maternity leave and information is not enough, adds Addati. A workplace that is “breastfeeding-friendly” provides women with comfortable, private facilities to express breast milk, access to a fridge to store it, a clean and safe environment, as well as day-care facilities and family-friendly working time arrangements for both women and men, if feasible.

The lack of support at the workplace is one of the main reasons why women stop breastfeeding before the recommended time. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this means six months of exclusive breastfeeding and then continued breastfeeding with the addition of nutritious complementary foods for up to two years or beyond.

Lack of longer, compulsory and well-remunerated leave policies can also be an incentive to stop breastfeeding."
“Even though the quantity and nutritional quality of breast milk are not affected when the mother is working, it is sometimes difficult for women to continue to breastfeed when they go back to work too soon after giving birth, especially when there is a lack of breastfeeding breaks and facilities at the workplace,” says Addati.

“Lack of longer, compulsory and well-remunerated leave policies for parents and the attitude of employers and colleagues can also be an incentive to stop breastfeeding,” she adds.

Good for businesses

Breastfeeding is not an obstacle to productivity: Research shows that women are more likely to stay in their job in the longer term, if they can breastfeed at work – which is a good way of retaining skilled workers.

Supporting breastfeeding among employees only involves limited costs for employers, both in terms of the employee’s time and the infrastructure that it requires.

Addati gives the example of the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, which provides a comprehensive breastfeeding programme to support workers, including on-site lactation rooms and flexible scheduling.

A few years after the programme was introduced, health-care claims were 35 per cent lower, 33 per cent of new mothers returned to work sooner than anticipated, absenteeism rates were 27 per cent lower among both men and women, and 67 per cent of all employees said they planned to stay with the company in the long run.

In countries like Belgium and Estonia, breastfeeding breaks are covered by social insurance and public funds. This means that the employers are not directly responsible for them. Such measures improve gender equality at work.

Progress is also being made in developing countries. Addati describes the example of Mozambique.

“Both employers and workers from the tourism industry in Mozambique have benefited from one of our programmes to improve working conditions, which include maternity protection,” says Addati. “It was impressive to see how employers were happy and enthusiastic to witness benefits in terms of lower absenteeism and increased worker retention after deciding to set up breastfeeding facilities.”

Countries such as the Philippines, where the ILO is supporting a joint UN programme on maternity protection and child nutrition, have also extended maternity protection and, in particular, breastfeeding arrangements and lactation stations to informal workers. Other countries – for example India – provide cash transfers to pregnant and nursing mothers if they fulfil certain conditions, including breastfeeding.

“Contrary to a common belief, informal workers also face problems in continuing to breastfeed when they return to work, as they are often unable to take their children with them to the fields, to collect firewood or water or to the employers’ household, in the case of domestic workers. When they do so, it often comes with risks to the child’s health and well-being and may lead to early involvement in child labour,” explains Addati.

The ILO’s role

The ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 191) call for the establishment of an integrated set of essential measures to help initiate, establish and maintain optimal breastfeeding practices. These include:

  • Maternity leave of at least 14 weeks paid at 66% of previous earnings, funded by compulsory social insurance or public funds OR 18 weeks with full pay, as encouraged in Recommendation No. 191.
  • Prenatal, childbirth and postnatal health care for both the mother and her child and cash benefits for women who do not qualify for social insurance.
  • Protection for a pregnant or nursing worker from work which has been determined to be harmful to her health or that of her child.
  • The right to return to the same or similar position paid at the same rate and protection from discrimination at work.
  • The right to one or more daily breaks or a reduction in working time for the purpose of breastfeeding.