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Maternity protection and decent work

20 October, 2015Maternity protection is important for fundamental human rights and gender equality, and it is part of the decent work agenda. Globally only 29 countries have ratified International Labour Organization’s Convention 183 on maternity protection.

Maternity protection is fundamental to protect the health of the woman and the child. Women need the cash benefit to enable them to meet their needs during maternity leave. Otherwise they return to work too early, risking their own health and that of their baby.

It is estimated by UN Women that only 28 per cent of employed women worldwide enjoy any paid maternity leave in practice. As a rule precarious workers have no maternity rights and do not benefit from maternity leave. Only permanent workers benefit from maternity protection.

Still women are often forced to sign pledges saying that they will not become pregnant within two years, five years, and so on. It is also not unheard of that women go through abortions to keep their jobs or to become permanent workers – as was told in India. Women are still subject to pregnancy tests for hiring, although this is almost always illegal.

Maternity leave is often regulated by law, but the law is not always enforced. In Morocco, as soon as the employer finds out the woman is pregnant, she is very often dismissed. Pregnant migrant workers in the Jordanian garment industry are sent home. In Cambodia women return to work too early because they need the money, risking their own health and that of the baby. Even where laws are in place, practical obstacles prevent women from claiming their rights.

Collective bargaining is a good tool to improve maternity rights over and above legislation. IndustriALL affiliate, SEM, in India for example managed to improve maternity leave over the legal provision at L’Oreal. Nevertheless more women have to be trained and involved as negotiators in order to avoid women’s demands being scrapped in negotiations. Women’s concerns need to be higher up on the collective bargaining agenda. And in addition trade unions, which are still dominated by men in most cases, have to start bargaining for other issues than just pay.

Extending paternity or parental leave to fathers is important to achieving substantive equality. Otherwise employers will continue to discriminate against women of childbearing age.

Maternity benefits should be financed from social security or other public funds. Maternity leave should be at least 14 weeks, and paternity leave and parental leave should be arranged in such a way that it can be shared between the parents. Informal, contract and precarious workers must be covered. All in all we need to fight for public policies for maternity protection and to ensure that society takes responsibility for maternity. Guaranteeing maternity protection was high on the agenda of the equality charter, which was adopted in September at IndustriALL’s Women World Conference.