Seeking a fair deal to working women for maternity

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, June 18 -- New international standards on maternity protection so as to give a fair deal to working women will come up next year in the form of a Convention and Recommendations at the International Labour Conference next year.

The move towards a convention got a go-ahead this year at the 87th session of the Conference, when its Committee on Maternity Protection agreed upon a set of conclusions for a convention and recommendations.

Concerned by the unequal treatment meted out to women in employment, due to their reproductive role, the Conference Committee this year has prepared the ground for stronger labour standards in this area.

The International Labour Office will now formulate drafts of a Convention and Recommendations, send it to member-countries for comments by governments, and their employers and workers groups, and on the basis of these comments, propose draft texts for debate and adoption at the 88th Session of the ILC in year 2000.

The tripartite Conference Committee on Maternity Protection, all of whose bureau were women -- first time in 80-years history, as ILO Director-General Juan Somavia put it -- adopted its report, containing the proposed conclusions for a Convention and Recommendation which would be an improvement upon the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No.103) and Recommendation 1952, (No. 95).

But both these existing Conventions have low number of ratifications. As of June 1997, only 36 countries had ratified the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised) , 1952 (No.103), and 17 others had ratified the Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No.3).

This low level of adherence was apparently no surprise to the Employer members who have consistently argued against the prescriptive and inflexible nature of Conventions. They have argued that any revised instrument must avoid repeating the "erroneous 'one-size-fits-all' approach, but instead have a set of declarations of principle to which all three social partners could subscribe, in the light of their individual domestic realities.

Maternity protection of women at work has been a core concern to the ILO since its establishment in 1919. The Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No. 3), was among the first instruments to be adopted. This was subsequently revised in 1952 to reflect developments in social security.

But some of the richest countries have not adhered to the Convention, and do not even have statutory protection.

As agreed in the conclusions, the proposed new Convention is to provide:

* A period of maternity leave not less than 12 weeks. This should include a period of compulsory leave, the duration and distribution of which should be determined in each country after consulting the representative organizations of employers and workers, with due regard to the protection of the health of mother and/or child.

* Additional leave should be provided before or after the maternity leave in case of illness, complications or risk of complications arising out of pregnancy or confinement.

* Cash and medical benefits should be provided in accordance with national laws and regulations or by other means such as collective agreements, arbitration awards or court decisions, or in any other manner as may be consistent with national practice.

* Cash benefits should be at a level which ensures that the woman worker can maintain herself and her child in proper conditions of health and with a suitable standard of living.

* Medical benefits should include pre-natal, confinement and post-natal care, as well as hospitalization care, when necessary

* A Member should ensure that the conditions to qualify for cash benefits are such that they do not result in excluding an unduly large percentage of women to whom this Convention applies.

* The burden of proving that the reasons for dismissal are unrelated to pregnancy or childbirth and its consequences or nursing should rest on the employer.

* A prohibition from requiring a test of pregnancy or a certificate of such a test when a woman is applying for employment, except for work prohibited for pregnant or nursing women.

* A woman should be entitled to daily break(s) to nurse her child, and this should be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly. The frequency and length of nursing breaks, pursuant to national law and practice, should be adapted to particular needs on the presentation of a medical certificate.

The contents of the proposed Recommendation, on the other hand, seek to extend the period of maternity leave to at least 16 weeks. They also expand on medical benefits that should be provided and the mechanisms; employment protection and discrimination, health protection and nursing mothers.

What seems to be missing from the proposed conclusions of the Committee, however, is any reference to breast-feeding, an issue which did come up many times, with particular NGOs like the International Women Count Network and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, raising the issue and trying their level best to put greater spotlight on the issue.

Asked why the conclusions of the Committee on Maternity Protection Convention failed to make any mention of breastfeeding, an ILO spokesperson said the issue in that context 'was not important.'

Yet, in their discussions both workers and government delegates used the term breast-feeding and also made numerous references to its importance. The government member of Netherlands, for instance, recalled the importance which UNICEF attached to the inclusion of nursing in the Convention and said that breastfeeding was a matter which affected the health of the child.

The notion that men are the sole providers for women and children has rapidly become a myth of the past, according to an ILO publication.

Nowadays, an increasing number of households in all regions of the world depend on two earners to maintain a suitable standard of living.

In many countries, women's earned income is vital for the survival of the family. A recent study showed that 59% of European working women and 55% of their counterparts in the United States supplied half or more of their family's household income, with one out of four women in Europe providing the total household income.

In India, an estimated 60 million people live in households maintained by women. Worldwide, women provide the main source of income in approximately 30% of households, whilst the vast majority of households headed by males have women members who contribute labour, income and other forms of support.

Yet, despite their growing importance in the world of work, the fact remains that maternity protection for vast numbers of working women is still barely assured.

The troubling reality is that, in all parts of the world, working women who become pregnant are faced with the threat of job loss, suspended earnings and increased health risks due to nadequate safeguards for their employment and the rights which derive therefrom.

Thus, protecting their health, ensuring their employment and providing a reasonable level of income to employed women before and after childbirth remains a momentous challenge. (SUNS4459)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

[c] 1999, SUNS - All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service without specific permission from SUNS. This limitation includes incorporation into a database, distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media or broadcast. For information about reproduction or multi-user subscriptions please contact < >

SUNS 4459, 21 Jun 1999