Is 11 months maternity leave necessary?
Trade unions have called for 11 months’ maternity leave in “consideration of women in the workplace”. Would it help working mums?

Cosatu gender forum chair Sharone Daniels said the current legislation made women feel punished for having children. Calling for the law to change to “accommodate women”, she said South Africa should be “striving” to meet the Pick n’ Pay model, which she considers the “best in the country”. Pick n’ Pay allows its employees 11 months of maternity leave, 9 of which are paid. In South Africa, mothers are allowed 4 consecutive months of maternity leave. Though employers are not compelled to pay maternity leave, new mothers are eligible for benefits under the Unemployment Insurance Act.

What is the standard across the world?

The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO) has set the standard leave period at 14 weeks. No country has cut the standard length since 1994, and instead the ILO said it has seen a shift towards leave periods that meet or exceed the 14-week standard.According to the ILO, 45% of the world (74 countries) provides cash benefits of at least two-thirds of earnings for at least 14 weeks.

How does Africa measure up?

While 53% of the world, or 98 countries, meet the ILO standard of at least 14 weeks maternity leave, the vast majority of women workers - around 830 million - are not adequately covered in practice.The ILO said almost 80% of these women work in Africa and Asia - where some groups of workers are excluded from protection in law and in practice. According to the ILO: “This is often the case for self-employed, migrant, domestic, agricultural, casual or temporary workers, and indigenous and tribal peoples.”

And South Africa?

South Africa’s 4 month allowance might exceed the recommended 14 weeks, but it trails behind the average of 19 weeks that is enjoyed by OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) - which include the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and much of Europe. The UK boasts the longest maternity leave in the OECD at 52 weeks.

Would more time off help women in the workplace?

Daniels’ based her call for longer maternity leave not on the benefits for the child, but for gender equality. She said: “The current legislation appears to have been written without consideration of women in the workplace. It was expected that women would be pregnant and chained to the stove”. But is there any real evidence to show a longer maternity helps “accommodate women” in the workplace? Overall, paid leave has been found to have a “positive effect” on women’s employment, according to the OECD, and it has helped to reduce the gender employment gap.

But according to research by the National Bureau of Economic Research, extending maternity leave and other benefits amount to “a pure leisure transfer”. The NBER paper, published in October 2013, found “no evidence of systematic changes in parental earnings or participation in the labour market in the short or long run, which means the leave expansions did nothing to gender equality on these dimensions”.

The research was based on Norway, which brought in paid maternity leave in 1977, and later extended the leave from 18 weeks to 35 weeks. “In a time when most countries are facing harsh budget realities, it is important to critically evaluate whether these socially expensive parental leave extensions had the desired policy effects,” the report added.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

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