Parental Leave Expanding Globally, Still Not Adequate, ILO Says

By Roy Maurer Jul 1, 2014

About one-third of the 185 countries studied by the International Labour Organization (ILO) fully met the organization’s maternity leave protection requirements on the duration of leave, amount of cash benefits and source of funding, according to a recent ILO report.

“The current main challenges lie in improving the length of maternity leave while simultaneously reducing reliance on employers for payment of maternity cash benefits,” the ILO said in the report titled Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and Practice Across the World.

The report compares the national laws covering workers’ parental protections in the 185 member countries of the ILO.

Fifty-seven countries fully conform to the key maternity leave requirements of ILO Convention No. 183, which calls for:

  • At least 14 weeks of paid leave.
  • Cash benefits of at least two-thirds of previous earnings while on leave.
  • Benefits paid by social insurance or public funds.

Virtually all countries have adopted some form of maternity protection legislation, according to the report. “Over the last 20 years, there have been noticeable improvements in terms of longer rest periods at the time of childbirth, and movement away from employer liability systems of financing paid maternity leave,” said Laura Addati, co-author of the report, and a maternity protection and work-family specialist with the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch.

“An increasing number of countries are also implementing measures to support both mothers and fathers’ care responsibilities, such as paternity, parental and adoption leave, as well as services and facilities to enable nursing and childcare,” Addati said in the report.

The percentage of countries since 1994 providing at least 14 weeks of maternity leave grew from 38 to 51 percent of the ILO membership total. Countries that have introduced paid leave and public financing of maternity benefits also rose during that time. The percentage of countries that provide unpaid leave dropped from 5 to 1 percent, while those that finance benefits through employer liability systems decreased from 33 percent to 26 percent.

However, the report found that progress has been uneven and the concept of parental leave from work still faces a number of challenges. “There is a distinction between how many workers are covered by maternity protection in law and how many actually benefit in practice,” said Addati. “Over 800 million [employed] mothers around the world are still not adequately protected with leave and cash benefits in case of maternity,” she said.

The ILO attributes this coverage gap to women’s lack of awareness of legal entitlements and benefits, insufficient contributory capacity, the gaps of social security systems, inadequate enforcement, discrimination and social exclusion. Almost 80 percent of these inadequately protected women are found in Africa and Asia. “These are the regions where employer liability schemes are more prevalent, informal work is predominant, and maternal and child mortality ratios are still very high,” Addati said.

Around 330 million women (28 percent of employed women worldwide) receive cash benefits in the event of childbirth. Among these workers, 38 percent are in the developed economies (Australia, Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). Less than 10 percent are in Africa and Asia. In only 21 countries—mostly European—more than 90 percent of employed women are entitled to receive some form of income support after having a child.

Many countries specify the categories of workers not covered by paid maternity leave to broadly include workers who are self-employed, domestic workers, agri­cultural workers, part-time and temporary workers, and migrant workers.

The regions with the highest proportion of countries in conformity with the ILO’s maternity leave protections are Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the developed economies. Conformity is particularly low in the rest of Asia and the Middle East, while not more than 20 percent meets the standards in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The proportion of countries meeting the specific standards on leave duration, level of pay and source of payment varies worldwide. Over half, or 98, of the countries studied provide at least 14 weeks of leave. Among those, 42 countries meet or exceed 18 weeks of leave. Sixty countries provide 12 to 13 weeks’ leave and 27 countries provide less than 12 weeks.

The longest average statutory durations of maternity leave are in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (almost 27 weeks), and the developed economies (21 weeks). The shortest regional average is in the Middle East (nine weeks).

“The length of leave is critical in enabling mothers to recover from childbirth and return to work while providing adequate care to their children,” said Addati. “When leave is too short, mothers may not feel ready to return to work and drop out of the workforce. However, very long leave periods, or parental leave mostly taken up by women, especially without job protection, may also damage women’s advancement in paid work, resulting in wage penalties.”

Seventy-four countries (45 percent) meet the standard of providing at least two-thirds of earnings for at least 14 weeks. Among these, 61 countries provide 100 percent of previous earnings for at least 14 weeks. Only three countries (Oman, Papua New Guinea and the United States) have no statutory requirement to provide compensation during maternity leave.

The ILO asserts that employer liability for maternity leave benefits works against the interests of women by creating a possible source of discrimination. The organization advocates for leave benefits to be financed through social security contributions.

Fifty-eight percent of countries finance leave benefits through social security, while another 16 percent rely on a combination of employer support and social security. Roughly one-quarter require leave benefits to be covered entirely by the employer.

Dads Getting More Leave Too

The ILO has no standard concerning paternity leave, but the report found that leave provisions for fathers are most common in the developed economies, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Paternity leave laws exist in 78 countries, up from 40 in 1994. Leave is paid in 70 of those countries. Employer liability is prevalent in 45 countries, half of which are in Africa, and social security financing is found in 22 countries. The length of paternity leave varies, from one day in Tunisia to 90 days in Finland, Iceland and Slovenia. Five countries offer leave periods of longer than two weeks. In almost all countries that offer paternity leave, fathers may choose whether to use it. Only Chile, Italy and Portugal make paternity leave compulsory.

Paternity leave is usually paid at 100 percent of previous earnings, with a few exceptions.

In some countries, collective bargaining agreements may provide paternity leave entitlements where legislation does not, or they may improve upon existing paternity leave or provide leave benefits not provided by law.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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