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Maternity and Work Worldwide

Maternity protection allows women to successfully combine their productive and reproductive roles without compromising one at the cost of another. Similarly, it protects women from marginalization/discrimination in the labor market.

What are ILO Conventions on maternity protection?

ILO started to address the issue of maternity protection from the very start and the first convention on maternity protection was adopted in the founding year of ILO, i.e., 1919. The Maternity Protection Convention (No.3) provided basic protection entitling a pregnant worker to 12 weeks paid maternity leave (level of cash benefits during leave to be determined by national authorities), at least 2 daily nursing breaks and protection against dismissal during the period of pregnancy. This convention was, however, limited only to the women employed in public/private industrial and commercial sectors.

The second convention adopted 33 years later in 1952 (No.103) extended the scope of convention by including women from non-industrial and agriculture occupation as well as domestic workers. It also expanded the leave provision (at least 12 weeks) and extending this leave provision to cover illness resulting from pregnancy or confinement.

Convention 183, adopted in year 2000, is the most recent and updated convention on the subject. It expands the scope of maternity protection to virtually all workers and provides for at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Why is maternity protection important?

Maternity protection allows women to successfully combine their productive and reproductive roles without compromising one at the cost of another. Similarly, it protects women from marginalization/discrimination in the labor market due to their reproductive roles.

Maternity protection, by contributing to the maternal and child health, contributes to the attainment of millennium development goals (MDGs) 4 and 5. Similarly, maternity protection measures safeguard and increase women employment and labor market presence, and ensure income security by providing cash and medical benefits during the period thereby helping in achievement of MDG 1 and 3.

The table below provides information on the relevant MDGs and targets.

Millennium Development Goals



Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Target 1.B: Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people

1.4 Growth rate of GDP per person employed
1.5 Employment-to-population ratio
1.6 Proportion of employed people living below $1 (PPP) per day
1.7 Proportion of own-account and contributing family workers in total employment

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Target 3.A: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015


3.1 Ratios of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education
3.2 Share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector
3.3 Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Target 4.A: Reduce by        two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate

4.1 Under-five mortality rate
4.2 Infant mortality rate
4.3 Proportion of 1 year-old children immunized against measles

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Target 5.A: Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio

5.1 Maternal mortality ratio
5.2 Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel

Target 5.B: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health

5.3 Contraceptive prevalence rate
5.4 Adolescent birth rate
5.5 Antenatal care coverage (at least one visit and at least four visits)
5.6 Unmet need for family planning

What are different elements/aspects of maternity protection?

There are different aspects of maternity protection of which maternity leave is only one such aspect. These aspects include health protection measures for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, maternity leave, leave in case of pregnancy related illness, provision of cash and medical benefits, employment protection and non-discrimination, allowing nursing breaks to breast-feeding mothers. The above MDGs can be achieved only when a country legislates on all aspects of maternity protection and ensures that these laws are complied with by organizations.

What are ILO provision on health and safety during pregnancy?

ILO Convention 183 recognizes pregnant and nursing women's right to health protection. National authorities are required to determine types of work, which could be detrimental/prejudicial to the health of mother or that of child.

One important measure to protect pregnant workers' health is arrangement of working time. Pregnant workers are usually exempted (and thus protected) from night work and overtime work. Earlier ILO conventions usually banned women night work. However, as a measure of equality, women can't be prohibited to do night work. Therefore, even pregnant workers may not be prohibited to do night work rather workers should be allowed to decide for themselves. A decision not to allow night work or overtime by pregnant workers should be based on a medical certificate declaring that night work is incompatible with pregnancy or nursing.

If work is prejudicial to the health of a pregnant worker or her child, worker should be provided an alternative to such work (like transferring to some safer position). This could also include changing her working conditions and working hours. However, such alternative work should not lead to a decrease in pay or benefits. This option is usually given once an assessment has been carried out to establish if the work involves significant risk to the health of a worker or that of her child.

What are ILO provisions on breast-feeding breaks?

According to ILO Convention 183, a women worker has the right to one or more daily breaks or a daily reduction of working hours in order to breast feed her child. National authorities determine the duration and number of these breaks. The first ILO Convention on maternity protection (No.3), however, required two 30-minute breaks in every working day.

As indicated by WHO studies, exclusive breast-feeding until the age of 6 months and partial breast-feeding up to the age of 2 years or even beyond is salubrious both for the mother and child. Breast feeding breaks are in addition to meal and rest breaks.

There are also provisions on nursing/day care facilities where women workers can breast-feed their children. It is usually an employer's responsibility to provide day care facility. However, these facilities are provided only once a minimum number of women are employed by an organization, like 50 or 100 women.

What does the ILO say about maternity leave?

As indicated above, the earlier conventions provided for (at least) 12 weeks of maternity leave. However, ILO Convention 183 requires maternity leave of at least 14 weeks of which six weeks leave must be taken following confinement/child birth. According to ILO statistics, 51% of countries provide maternity leave of at least 14 weeks. 35% of countries provide 12 to 13 weeks of leave, which is less than what is required under Convention 183 but still consistent with the provisions of Conventions 3 and 103. Only 14% of countries provide maternity that is even less than 12 weeks. 82% of Middle Eastern countries provide less than 12 weeks of maternity leave. On the other hand, 93% of the Central and South Eastern Europe (non-EU) and CIS countries provide at least 18 weeks of maternity leave.

A pregnant worker is free to take her leave with the condition that she takes compulsory leave of 6 weeks following the childbirth. The intention is to protect women workers from pressure to return to work, which could have unwholesome effect on her or her child's health.

ILO Convention also provides for extension in the maternity leave if some unusual event takes place during pregnancy or confinement. This includes delay in expected birth date, premature birth, multiple births, mother or child's illness, etc.

What are ILO provisions on cash benefits during maternity leave?

ILO Convention 183 requires that cash benefits be provided to workers during their maternity leave. Of the developed countries, United States is the only outlier which does not provide cash benefits during maternity leave. The convention also requires that level of benefits should be as such that a woman can afford herself and for her child a suitable standard of living. If cash benefits are to be based on past earnings (usually of last 12 months), amount of benefits should be at least two-thirds of such earnings. And these benefits should last the whole duration of maternity leave.

ILO Convention also requires that qualifying conditions (to get these benefits) must be set in such a way that a majority of women workers are able to satisfy these. Eligibility requirements may include the minimum period of employment that a woman worker has been employed in an organization (6 months or 1 year), number of times that a worker can take these benefits, payment of a minimum number of contributions to the social security system, etc.

Who pays these cash benefits? Employer or Government?

Both the earlier conventions provided that employers were not individually liable for maternity benefits and these benefits were to be paid through some social insurance scheme or other public funds. This is because requiring employers to pay for these benefits can turn out negatively for women workers as employers see higher costs associated with employing women workers. And thus women workers are discriminated against in hiring. ILO Conventions require that an employer may not be individually made liable for paying this benefit.

The three systems, in vogue, to provide cash benefits during maternity leave use either social security, employer resources, or a mixture of public funds/social security and employer resources. According to ILO statistics, out of the 167 countries surveyed, around half of them provide cash benefits through social security systems while 26% obligate employers to provide these benefits. Cost sharing among social security institution(s) and employer(s) is done merely in 17% of economies.

Are workers protected against dismissals during maternity leave?

ILO conventions 3 and 103 (on maternity protection) require that a woman on maternity leave may not be dismissed from service (limited protection only!). ILO Convention 183, however, extends this protection to period of pregnancy, period following a worker's return to work (breast-feeding period) apart from maternity leave. The earlier conventions provided protection only to the already employed women workers (protection from dismissal) however the current convention protects also those who seek employment (pregnant women and women of child bearing age).

After availing maternity leave, workers also have the guaranteed right to return to same or equivalent position.

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