Maternity Protection Meeting on Ratification of ILO Convention 183

The ILO-sponsored workshop to promote ratification of ILO Convention 183 on maternity protection was attended by some 40 women from Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Swaziland and Tanzania. The women came from the electricity sector, the mining sector, the diamond sector, the textile and garment sector, the chemical sector and the metal sector.

Laura Addati from ILO Geneva made a presentation on maternity protection, why it is important and what should be focused on. To start with, none of the countries represented at the workshop have ratified the convention. Many countries have met some of the provisions included in the convention, and yet others do not meet the old standard.

What is maternity protection at work? Maternity protection at work covers five areas – maternity leave, cash and medical benefits, health protection at work, employment protection and non-discrimination and breastfeeding. ILO Convention 183 is meant to apply to all women, employed women and women in so-called atypical forms of employment, which is, women who work on fixed term contracts; casual, contract, seasonal and part-time workers, homeworkers, piece workers, temporary agency workers; unorganized, informal employees and women in disguised self-employment.

Ratification of ILO Convention 183 needs to be seen against the backdrop of the African context. Africa has high maternal and infant mortality and morbidity which are exacerbated by HIV/AIDS. Poverty and social vulnerability are widespread due to loss of income related to maternity as well as health risks. Child malnutrition is also critical. Labor markets are marked by gender inequality. Countries in Africa will not meet the Millenium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV. Maternity protection can assist meeting the goals. Maternity protection allows time for rest and recovery, it provides economic empowerment, it protects women’s health at work and it promotes the mother’s and the child’s health through breastfeeding.

Maternity-related discrimination is still a major violation of human rights. During the crisis we have been seeing more cases of maternity-related discrimination.

Maternity leave is one of the stipulations of the Convention. It should not be less than 14 weeks. Leave can be a combination of prenatal and postnatal time off. The postnatal time off should be at least a compulsory six weeks. Additional leave should be granted in case of illness, complications or the risk of complications.

According to the Convention cash benefits should be paid to the mother on maternity leave. Cash benefits should not be less than 2/3 of previous earnings. The cash benefit should allow for the well-being of the mother and the baby. Where practicable the cash benefit should rise to the full amount of previous earnings. The qualifying conditions should be met by a large majority of employed women. Ideally the payment should come from social security or public funds. Many countries attach strict conditions to the cash benefits. This becomes an obstacle to actual maternity protection either by establishing minimum working time or spacing children or limiting the number of children. 61 percent of African countries do not meet the requirements of the duration and quantity of the cash benefits. Lesotho and Swaziland do not even provide for paid leave.

In connection with medical protection and health protection the Convention stipulates that pregnant or breastfeeding women should not be obliged to perform work harmful to health. The measures to avoid such hazardous work are either the elimination of risk, the adaptation of the job, transfer to another job without loss in pay or paid leave. In addition the woman has the right to return to her job or an equivalent job after maternity leave.

Employment protection and non-discrimination guarantee the right to return to the same or equivalent job. Thus maternity must not constitute a source of discrimination in employment, including access to employment. Hence there is a ban on pregnancy testing. The burden of proof rests with the employer to prove that any dismissal is not pregnancy related.

As far as breastfeeding is concerned, paid breaks are allowed for it. It is usually a question of one or more daily breaks or a reduction in working time. The period of breaks, their length and numbers should be decided nationally. One possibility is to arrange nursing rooms near the workplace.

A right for parental leave for the father is also contemplated. Its duration, use and benefits are also up to the countries to decide. Parental leave is an important step for equality at work.

What have we learned from the process of ratification of ILO Convention 183? Most of the countries that have ratified the Convention are in Europe. Benin, Mali and Morocco have recently ratified, which indicates that there is new momentum in the ratification process, something which should be seized. For ratification a country must meet the leave requirement of 14 weeks. 20 percent of countries in Africa do not meet the requirements of the Convention. This means that much has to be done to review legal and social standards.

One of the bottlenecks is who pays the maternity benefit. Employers are unwilling to extend the leave required by the Convention if they must pay the leave. If there is no commitment to paying additional leave by governments or public funds, then the employers will resist extending leave. In Zambia for example the First Lady is a promoter of the Convention, but the employers will resist paying more, unless there is a shift toward a solidarity system to make the payments from public funds. Ultimately maternity is a social responsibility. Protecting maternity is not only a woman’s issue, all society is concerned.

South Africa and Zimbabwe are already in a position to ratify the Convention because they already have 14 weeks of maternity leave. South Africa must raise the cash benefits to 66 percent from 60. Zimbabwe, however, would need to reform the social security system. Tanzania and Namibia would need to increase maternity leave by two weeks because they do have the social security system in place. Morocco and Benin did a feasibility study to show how much it would cost the social security system. Maternity pay is only a short-term payment and therefore not a tremendous burden on the system. What is needed is political will. A feasibility study makes it possible to determine the capacity. It can prove that extending the leave will not lead to bankruptcy.

In South Africa women have trouble accessing the system. This is something that trade unions must address.

Countries can also work on the basis of national social protection forums. In this way it is possible to accommodate the many self-employed and own-account workers that may exist. Minimum guarantees need to be set up for essential health care for all, maternity health care, free pre-natal and post-natal care, basic income security, cash benefits for maternity. Tripartite participation is important in setting up these guarantees.

The ILO can provide technical assistance as well as capacity development. It can help with the campaign. Alliances should be created among many groups. Trade unions can create awareness and get people committed in addition to promoting the implementation of existing legislation. National focus needs to be on precarious workers whose situation can be improved through collective bargaining. Maternity benefits need to be part of agreements to cover precarious workers. Unions can do research on maternity protection. Women’s representation should be improved and members’ capacities for negotiating maternity protection and childcare enhanced.

In general the challenges indicated were often cut-off periods, waiting periods, spacing, periods to qualify. As a rule there is no maternity leave for contract workers. In some cases they get some allowance and some get two weeks off after one to two years of service. In Zimbabwe no one is permanent in the leather industry. The sister has been working for 14 years on contract. There is no maternity leave. The attitude is that whoever complains gets the door.  In many cases when women get pregnant, they are dismissed and someone else is hired on the spot. Nor is there breastfeeding time for contract workers. ZEWU Zimbabwe is lobbying the employer to get the same benefits for contract workers as for permanent workers. In Mauritius there is no protection at all for contract workers. Since their contract never extends longer than 12 months, they never qualify for maternity leave or benefit. In Lesotho textile workers have two weeks of paid leave. In South Africa the people on contracts come from labor brokers. They are not organized. Women lose their jobs from labor brokers if they get pregnant. One woman lost her baby at nine months of pregnancy because of concealing the pregnancy. We need to challenge the principal employer when the labor broker does not comply with the law. In Swaziland contract workers are not entitled to maternity leave. Permanent workers have one month paid leave – out of the three months of leave one month is paid. In general the women are afraid of losing their jobs which is why they make no demands.

In Zambia there are a lot of women in the electric power industry. There is a lot of casualization. After three years of service, the women can go on maternity leave. Contract workers get two weeks off as sick leave. The women’s jobs often entail climbing up to the lines. When they are pregnant there is no other job they can do. This is a dilemma.

Generally it is safe to say that employers seek and find loopholes to avoid providing leave and allowances. And even trade unions do not necessarily prioritize maternity questions. If not enough women are on bargaining teams, then no improvements are negotiated for women. One positive example was given from CEPPWAWU South Africa – in 2011 the men wanted to go on strike for their percentages. The women wanted to withhold their subscriptions until the union agreed to go on strike for maternity. This was done, and in this way the maternity benefit went up in the oil industry from 20 to 80 percent for six months.

The women did a role play on how to get ILO Convention 183 ratified. The groups had a number of people involved in their plays from employers to government ministers to trade unions, workers, pregnant women, family members, media, the constitutional court, presidents, parliament. What the women learned from the role play was mainly how important arguments are in putting the case forward.

Mr Buraga from the Ministry of Labor paid a visit to the meeting and made a brief presentation. In Botswana maternity leave is paid on the basis of half salary for 3 months. It used to be 25 percent, but it went up to half in 2010. 30 minutes are allowed for breastfeeding twice a day for six months. The government has not yet decided whether or not to ratify ILO Convention 183. Employers pay the maternity benefit especially because social security is still in infancy. This situation urgently needs reviewing, especially in light of the labor shortage which reigns in Botswana. Women are a resource that needs to be tapped. Decent work needs to be made available to them.

Working groups met to decide on how to follow up on the workshop. The women promised to report back to their women’s structures, to lobby governments, to arrange campaigns at home. They all felt they needed more materials in local languages. They wanted to arrange actions with high visibility and to work together with the media. It was felt that mobilization was necessary before the next June conference of the ILO. Campaigns have to be run together with civil society. Collective bargaining has to be utilized to get coverage for vulnerable groups. The women understood that they had to fight hard and form alliances.

The meeting ended with a call for solution to the ZEWU crisis in Zimbabwe where Angeline Chitambo was dismissed for flimsy reasons. IndustriALL continues to campaign for her reinstatement.