Lobbying to change the paid maternity leave policy in South Africa

According to Nicol Mullins, a member of the executive committee of the South African Reward Association (SARA), South African companies focused on employee-centric proposals have adopted global maternity leave policies rather than country-specific ones.

Mullins said the Covid-19 pandemic was raising critical health issues around employee well-being and safety, as well as remote working and rotating workforce arrangements. This has changed the way South African companies treat their employees.

Current South African legislation provides four consecutive months unpaid maternity leave in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

The SARA executive member said most companies respect their employees’ right to time off work. Despite this, new mothers may feel pressured to get back to work as soon as possible rather than taking time to bond with their newborns. Mullin said it could be the result of living in an “always on” work environment.

“The South African reality is often that of single parenthood, mostly female. Due to financial circumstances and a system that is not working optimally, they are forced to return to work sooner than they would like to make ends meet,” Mullins said.

Inequality towards women

A study by the rewards management platform, Remchannel, highlighted the increase in inequalities against women when it comes to maternity leave.

The study, conducted in 2021, found that while 60% of employee benefits survey participants offered fully paid maternity leave for the minimum required period of 4 months, 24% indicated that an employee would not would not receive pay during her maternity leave.

Remchannel chief executive Rene Richter said the 24% represents a 7 basis point regression since 2019. This could in part be due to difficult business conditions from persistently weak economic growth over several years and the sudden emergence of Covid-19.

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) provides for paid and unpaid maternity leave, and the choice is defined by each company’s maternity leave policy. The law also provides that employees can claim the UIF during the period, but it is only part of their compensation.

“Many organizations that follow the letter of the law are not fully aware of the unintended consequences. Unpaid maternity leave is a major financial burden on the family unit at a time when access to these funds is crucial,” Richter said.

“The consequence of this is that the family would likely need to obtain loans, which has a longer-term impact on financial recovery. As the primary caregiver, this also implicitly means that more than one pregnancy in the A woman’s career will impact financial well-being as well as career progression over a period of time.

Global research indicates that approximately 50% of women feel their career has been negatively affected due to pregnancy. According to the PwC Women in Work Index 2021, progress for women in the workplace has regressed to 2017 levels due to Covid-19, which has seen large numbers of women leave formal employment.

Richter said that with such inequalities in the workplace, companies are missing an opportunity to create an attractive employee value proposition that would attract and retain highly skilled and in-demand women.

“The benefit of moving to a paid maternity leave policy will mean that women no longer have to choose between a career and a family. They will be able to enjoy time with their newborn without financial worries,” Richter said.

She said expanding maternity leave policies and inclusive medical benefits to better meet the needs of women will not only make them feel valued by their organization, but it will also increase the retention of highly skilled employees and be a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting top talent.

Additionally, Richter said companies need to take a contemporary approach to hiring, promote open dialogue and, most importantly, empower leaders to recognize biases and hold them accountable for ensuring fairness, diversity and fairness. inclusion. Although these measures may implicitly entail an additional cost, they could be phased in gradually.

“While BCEA compliance is seen as the minimum requirement, consideration must be given to the consequences and whether the practice addresses inequities,” Richter said.

Mullins said South Africa has not seen a change in maternity leave for some time and generally lags behind many other countries. To change employment practices, top-down legislation will allow organizations to take a holistic approach.

“Decisions are often made based on two considerations, legal or principle. We have seen that the majority of organizations follow the lowest legal bar when setting leave policies. Practically, a change in legislation will lead to a change in policy,” Mullins said.

He added that it is up to progressive organizations with a true employee experience-centric approach not to wait for legal changes and adopt a more liberal policy than legally required.

A good amount of lobbying will have to take place for us to see major changes in employers’ maternity leave policies, Mullins said.

How South Africa Compares Globally

“South Africa’s leave policies are in the middle of the pack when you look at what is granted globally,” Mullins said.

He added that the Nordic countries and the UK were leading with around 52 weeks of maternity leave a year made available to female employees.

“Some Nordic countries offer shared parental leave. Organizations taking a comprehensive approach have rolled out maternity leave that goes well beyond local legislative requirements.

Shared maternity leave or “parental leave” in the Nordic countries can approach a full year of paid leave or a slight reduction of around 80%.

In terms of Company.org‘s report on paid maternity leave among OECD countries, the Nordic countries occupy the top 10 positions.

In South Africa, if you have contributed to the Unemployment insurance fund (UIF)you are entitled to a maternity benefit up to a maximum of 60% of your remuneration depending on your level of income.

The UIF benefit is however subject to the condition that the employer pays less than 100% the employee’s average salary during maternity leave.

Mullins added that South Africa is not exempt from an emerging market trend where payment of paid leave is often delayed by months, compared to developed countries where social security systems are better suited.

Read: Telkom announces mandatory vaccination policy

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