Maternity protection for employed women is an essential element in equality of opportunity. Among the first international labour standards to be adopted in 1919 was Convention No. 3 concerning the employment of women before and after childbirth. This Convention laid out the basic principles of maternity protection:
The right to leave was reinforced by the explicit prohibition of dismissal during a woman's absence on maternity leave or at such time that the notice would expire during such absence. Employment security was thus seen as a vital aspect of maternity protection.
The Maternity Protection Convention (No. 103), of 1952, retained the same principal elements of protection (i.e. the right to maternity leave, medical care and cash benefits), but the means and manner of providing these benefits were made more explicit:
National laws designed to protect the health of mother and child and the employment rights of working women figure prominently in the legislation of almost every ILO member State. There are, however, important variations as regards the scope of coverage, the extent of protection, the complexity of the schemes in force, and the respective responsibility of the State and of individual employers for the provision of cash benefits.
Typically, a simple package includes the provision, under labour legislation, of leave before and after the birth, often with the payment of cash benefits, whether by the employer, out of social security schemes, through public funds, or by a combination of these means. It is declared unlawful for employers to give notice of dismissal during maternity leave and its eventual extension, or at such time as the notice would expire during such leave. Nursing mothers are authorized to take breaks, which are often paid, for breastfeeding.
More comprehensive packages improve on the above provisions in terms of the length of maternity leave, the level of benefits and the length of the period during which employment is protected. They often include a series of measures aimed at protecting the health of the woman and the unborn child, such as the prohibition or limitation of night work or overtime work, and a right to transfer from work that may be detrimental to the outcome of pregnancy either because it is intrinsically dangerous or because it is inadvisable in view of an individual woman's state of health. The health protection measures envisaged for pregnant women often apply also to nursing mothers.
Explicit protection against discrimination is a feature of the most advanced schemes. In the European Union, any unequal treatment linked with pregnancy or motherhood is considered as direct discrimination on grounds of sex. In a growing number of countries, there is also a move towards adopting a parental approach. Under parental schemes, a period of maternity leave is reserved for the mother within a longer period of leave which is available to either or both parents.
As women's employment throughout their child-bearing years continues to rise and women return to work after childbirth in ever greater numbers, discussion has begun on possible new international standards on maternity protection. Important elements to be considered include: the extension of coverage to all employed women; stronger protection from dismissal during pregnancy or maternity leave and after return to work; and measures to remove maternity as a source of discrimination in employment. It is expected that new instruments will be adopted in 2000.
→ see also Benzene, Breastfeeding workers, Cash and medical benefits for maternity, Maternity leave and Protection of health during maternity
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