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Maternity and South Africa

Maternity and South Africa

Interesting information written by Annemarie van Wyk (from Your Pregnancy Magazine) gives us food for thought in terms of our policy writing and the determination of best practice regarding maternity benefits:

“South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where the employer is under no obligation to pay the employee during maternity leave.”


Discriminatory law
Experts believe the South African labour law with regards to maternity leave is inadequate and even discriminatory. This is one of the very few countries in the world where the employer is under no obligation to pay maternity benefits.

Cash benefits are much less in comparison to other countries and do not comply with guidelines set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Even in comparison to other developing countries South African legislation is far behind. According to a 2002 ILO survey, women in more than half the countries in Africa receive their full salary during maternity leave.

The ILO states that women comprise more than half of the world’s labour market. More women than ever before are working outside the home.

In South Africa cash benefits for maternity leave are determined by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) and the Unemployment Insurance Act (UIA). A woman is entitled to four months maternity leave. The employer has no obligation to pay her during this time. The employer’s only obligation is to reserve her position in the company. The problem for most women is not the amount of maternity leave allowed but the financial implications. Maternity in South Africa impoverishes and disempowers otherwise financially independent women.

A woman may, if she has contributed to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) for more than four months, claim from the fund. Depending on her salary, she may claim between 30% (somebody who earns R10 000 per month) or 58% (somebody who earns R150 per month).

For most women this hardly covers basic expenditure like monthly down payments on a house, car and insurance.


Addressing inadequacies

According to Prof Ockert Dupper, discrimination and labour law expert from the University of Stellenbosch, the sliding scale system was introduced in an effort to address redistribution and to strengthen the ailing UIF. “It is an improvement on previous labour legislation, but it still not complies with the ILO’s recommendation of 100%,” says Dupper. He further says that little is being done to address the inequality.

The joint monitoring committee on the improvement of the quality of life and the status of women in parliament is the government body entrusted to ensure that legislation does not discriminate against women.

Priscilla Themba, joint chairperson of the committee was not aware of any inadequacies in the legislation. She promised that the committee would “look into the matter”.

There seems to be a certain lack of interest or awareness among women’s groups to address the matter. Issues such as abortion and rape take priority. Not a single women’s group could be found that is actively campaigning for the improvement of maternity benefits. Women who are pregnant and about to give birth are presumably too otherwise occupied to take up the matter.

Judi Merckel, national co-ordinator of the Reproductive Right’s Alliance, says the current legislation penalises women who stop working to have a baby. “Employers should pay 100%,” says Merckel.

Lynn Taylor, human resources manager of the Gender Advocacy Program, agrees. “Current legislation is totally inadequate. It is grossly unfair. Employers cannot afford to pay employees for four months. Access to benefits is also inadequate. Some women have to wait months before they receive anything.”

All is not lost though. Many employees have secured a better deal through trade unions. Some large companies pay a 100% of the woman’s salary during maternity leave while others pay the difference between the cash benefits received from the UIF and the full salary. The almost 500 000 women employed by the State receive their full salary during maternity leave.

“A lot has been done, but it is still not enough,” says advocate Elize Delport, human rights activist from the University of Pretoria. She says there is an abundance of shortcomings in the legislation.

“In South Africa most women (and their husbands) are worse off for having children. The women hardest hit are those in the informal sector, unemployed women, women who work for small businesses and women who do seasonal work. More often than not these women are completely reliant on their partners for financial support during maternity,” says Delport.

Women who adopt children are not entitled to maternity leave. The law also does not make provision for multiples or babies with special needs, like premature babies.

South African fathers are not, as in most other countries, entitled to paternity leave. A father may however take three days leave for “family obligations”.

“In an ideal society child-rearing should be shared,” says Delport.

Dupper says it is hardly likely that a court would find the current legislation discriminatory. “At first glance the legislation seems discriminatory, but with the UIF the State fulfils its responsibility. It won’t make financial sense to enforce full salary payment.” It may even discourage business to employ women of childbearing age. He says a court may find the legislation “justifiable discrimination”.


Sharing responsibility

“Other options for cash resources should be explored,” says Dupper. He suggests that the State and the private sector share responsibility. Possibilities include a whole new social security system where the State pays half and the employer the other half.

Companies could through tax relief incentives be encouraged to meet women’s needs.

The temporary and sometimes permanent financial impoverishment has dire consequences. In most cases it forces women to return to work as soon as possible after the birth. “It is not in the interest of women, their children or society at large,” says Dupper.

Basic trust in people and their environment is acquired in the first few months after birth, says Ilse Pauw, Health 24’s clinical psychologist and parenting expert. “The baby’s basic needs have to be fulfilled on a regular basis by a trusted and loving caregiver to develop trust in human relations. Women who return to work too soon after birth are under immense strain,” says Pauw. Too much stress could make a new mother susceptible to postnatal depression and even psychosis. In some cases it has long-term effects on her health, her relationship with her child and her performance at work.

The original article by Article: By Annemarie van Wykfrom Your Pregnancy magazine has been reviewed by Tracey Lander from Workinfo.com.


Tracey Lander

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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