By John Zarocostas, McClatchy Foreign Staff
GENEVA — The United States is the only Western country — and one of only three in the world — that does not provide some kind of monetary payment to new mothers who’ve taken maternity leave from their jobs, a new U.N. study reports.
Two other countries share the U.S. position of providing “no cash benefits during maternity leave,” according to the report, which was released Tuesday by the International Labor Organization: Oman, an absolute monarchy in the Persian Gulf; and Papua New Guinea, a South Pacific nation where the U.S. State Department says violence against women is so common that 60 percent of men in a U.N. study acknowledged having committed a rape.
The other 182 countries surveyed provide either a Social Security-like government payment to women who’ve recently given birth or adopted a child or require employers to continue at least a percentage of the worker’s pay. In 70 countries, paid leave is also provided for fathers, the report said, including Australia, which introduced 14 days of paid paternity leave last year, and Norway, which expanded its paternity leave from 12 to 14 weeks.
The United States also provides for fewer weeks of maternity leave than what other Western countries mandate, the report said.
Under U.S. law, businesses are required to allow a new mother to take as many as 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In New Zealand, the leave is 14 weeks; in Australia, it’s 18 weeks. Switzerland has allowed women workers to take 18 weeks off since 2005; they’re paid 80 percent of their salaries under a government program similar to Social Security in the United States.
Government provides the payments in most the surveyed countries, the International Labor Organization said, with 107 nations making cash benefits available through their national social security plans. In 45 countries, the benefits are paid solely by employers, while in 30 countries employers and social security plans bear the costs.
The International Labor Organization, which has promoted better working conditions since it became the U.N.’s first specialized agency in 1946, said it prefers leave mandates that do not saddle individual companies with the cost, saying such requirements hurt businesses and potentially lead to bias against hiring women.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, requires that mothers receive 14 weeks leave at full pay through a combination of government and employer payments. In Great Britain, a new mother is allowed to take a full year off, the report said, with payments during the first six weeks totaling 90 percent of her salary. After that, the payments are set at the equivalent of $232 per week or 90 percent of pay, whichever is less, for the next 33 weeks. The final 13 weeks of the leave are unpaid.
The report held out the prospect that the United States might one day join the rest of the world through the proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013, which would establish a national paid family leave insurance program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to recover from childbirth, serious illness, care for a sick family member, or to bond with a new baby. The legislation was introduced in December by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and has 87 sponsors, but its prospects are uncertain in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
Despite what the report described as positive movement over the last two decades in maternity leave policies around the world, the report found that financial support provided in half the countries was “neither financially adequate nor sufficiently long lasting.” It said that 830 million women workers “are not adequately covered in practice, mainly in developing countries.”
Laura Addati, a maternal protection specialist for the International Labor Organization, said that 98 countries worldwide met the organization’s standard of 14 weeks leave and that 74 countries met the standard of providing cash benefits of at least two-thirds of earnings during that time.
The report noted that five U.S. states mandate paid maternity leave — California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. It said that about 12 percent of women workers in the United States are entitled to mandated paid maternity leave.
“In order to have gender equality, you must have maternity protection,” said Shauna Olney, chief of the International Labor Organization’s gender, equality and diversity branch.
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