Maternity Protection Coalition Press Release, 5th June 2000

Hard Bargaining at ILO / 88th International Labour Organisation Conference – Geneva



On Saturday, June 3, the International Labour Office (ILO) Maternity Protection Committee voted to increase maternity leave to 14 weeks. (The vote was 111,061 for, 97,478 against, and 6,392 abstaining.) Maternity leave was set at 12 weeks in 1919, and this is the first change in 81 years. Although it is a move in the right direction, there is still a need to bring maternity protection provisions in line with current health recommendations as presented to the Committee by WHO and UNICEF. Yet to be debated are the provisions on paid breastfeeding breaks and workplace facilities that enable women to sustain exclusive breastfeeding while at work.


The Maternity Protection Coalition wants to see that protection for breastfeeding mothers will be

strengthened, not “bargained” away.


A raw deal for women


For the last 81 years, breastfeeding was a part of “maternity.” The first Maternity Protection Convention No 3, passed in 1919, established the ILOs basic principles of job-protected maternity leave, income replacement for mothers on leave, and health protection for mothers and babies. Convention 3 called for two half hour nursing breaks for women returning to work after leave. The first Maternity Protection Convention revision in 1952 strengthened the standard by adding the requirement that nursing breaks be paid and counted as working time. But soon after the second revision began in 1998 women discovered that nursing breaks and other protection for breastfeeding mothers had been laid on the table as a “bargaining chip”.


A fair deal for women workers


What has changed since 1919? Not womens biology. Not their babies needs for the best attainable nutrition, health protection and care. What has changed is womens economic and political position in the face of

business and industry. More women nowadays are spending their childbearing years in paid employment,

and the need for adequate maternity protection legislation has thus increased. These labour market changes were one reason that the ILO governing body decided that it was time to revise the Maternity Protection Convention for the second time.


Not a “big deal” for governments and employers


The low level of ratification of the previous Maternity Protection Conventions was a reason for revising. According to ILOs count only 38 countries have ratified either of the two MPCs. The ILO Secretariat has stated in Report V (2) that a more flexible, less prescriptive instrument would be more ratifiable. But the ILO itself reported in 1998 that four out of five members states surveyed provided 12 or more weeks maternity leave.

In the African region, only three countries had ratified but 39 had 12 weeks or more of maternity leave.

This fact contradicts the opening statement by the Employers that when countries do not ratify, “absolutely nothing happens.” Furthermore, the Croatian delegate reported that her country provides 28 weeks of paid maternity leave, and women make up 45% of the workforce. This example shows that providing maternity

leave does not necessarily jeopardize womens opportunity for employment.


The best deal for all


One major concern about any increase in maternity protection is “who will bear the cost?” The health and economic benefits of maternity protection must also be considered by all parties. Everyone benefits from maternity protection, so everyone should share the costs. For employers, the benefits include a productive, stable and loyal workforce, giving them a competitive edge in the market. For nations, the benefits include lower health care costs and less need to manufacture or import expensive substitute foods for babies. In the long-term perspective, the benefits of providing adequate maternity protection far outweigh the costs. Or as the delegate from Finland said at the opening of the session, maternity protection is an investment in Social Capital.



To support the right of women workers to breastfeed, we strongly recommend, in the Convention:


  • Two half-hour remunerated breastfeeding breaks daily for up to one year after birth.


  • A clean space for breastfeeding or expression of breastmilk at or near the workplace.


And in the Recommendation:


  • At least six months paid maternity leave after birth


Contact for further information :


GIFA, Geneva Infant Feeding Association, Avenue de la Paix 11, 1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Phone : +41 22 798 91 64 Fax: +41 22 798 44 43

Email: [email protected]


The ILO Campaign is organised by the Maternity Protection Coalition consisting of groups from The World Alliance of Breastfeeding Action (WABA), the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and LINKAGES, with technical support from International Maternal & Child Health, Uppsala (IMCH) and the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF).


See daily updates on the ILO Campaign website.