Maternity rights safeguard pregnant women and women who have recently given birth as well as breast-feeding employees. These are intrinsic since they protect women from being discriminated against at their place of work. They are also essential because, without them, women would be far less protected. And since rights are intrinsic to each and every human being, then it is correct that maternity rights should be legally safeguarded.
At first glance, some might believe that maternity rights are available only to women who have given birth but, in fact, maternity rights are due to pregnant women too. Maternity rights are applicable to women who have given birth or to mothers-to-be who are in employment and not to stay-at-home mothers because maternity rights are there to protect these women at their place of work.
The onus to inform the employer of her pregnancy, delivery or breast-feeding period lies with the woman herself. She has to do so not simply by verbally informing the employer of her current situation but she must supply her employer with a medical certificate issued by her medical practitioner or a certificate from her midwife.
It is immaterial whether the child is born alive or still-born – the woman is still entitled to maternity rights.
Her employment will be secured. Therefore, an employer cannot render a woman unemployed simply because she is pregnant or because she has just given birth or is in her breast-feeding period.
Her salary will be protected. She will be deemed as being in employment and, in fact, she will be entitled to any rights and benefits due to her.
The law provides also for special maternity leave. This is available to pregnant women, women who have given birth and to women who are breast-feeding. Such women are entitled to special maternity leave when there is a risk to their health despite the employer having taken the necessary measures to remove the health hazard albeit unsuccessfully.
If simply adjusting working hours is not enough or not feasible, such risk can be avoided by providing suitable alternative work. The special maternity leave will remain in force as long as the risk to her health remains present. As soon as the risk ceases to exist she is in duty bound to resume work, that is, her old job.
But if, for valid reasons, she cannot resume her old job she is to be provided with a suitable alternative job consistent with her original work agreement.
Again, the onus to notify the employer rests with the woman. Therefore, if the woman realises that there is no longer a risk to her health, then she is in duty bound to inform her employer in writing.
In turn, the employer has the duty to ensure that the woman has her old job back and he will notify her accordingly in writing.
Meanwhile, the employer can take all measures to eliminate the risk.
If the employer does manage to make the work environment a safe one for a pregnant woman, a woman who has given birth, is breast-feeding, then he has to inform the woman in writing.
In this instance, she will be expected to accept if the said job or work environment does not pose a risk to her health.
As from 2012, maternity leave has been increased from 14 to 16 weeks and will further increase to 18 weeks come 2013.
This is a welcome improvement to all women because they will not be pressured to go back to work immediately and their work will still be safeguarded while being on maternity leave.
Also, if certain women felt the need to postpone having a child due to work commitments, maternity rights will guarantee that their job will not be adversely affected by the woman’s attempt to have a child.
However, the employer is only bound to pay the full wages up to 14 weeks of maternity leave.
If the woman avails herself of the remaining weeks, the employer is not legally bound to pay her any wages, although she would be entitled to maternity benefit for the remaining time beyond the 14-week period.
Does this really help women to enjoy their maternity leave or to bond with their newborn?
I believe it puts undue pressure on women to return immediately to work.
Women in the workforce are increasing, something which, in the past, was shunned because women were deemed to be better suited in the home environment.
However, bringing up a family is not easy and, to be able to juggle between work and family, certain measures needed to be put in place.
Maternity rights are essential provisions that were needed to help protect women’s rights at the workplace while, at the same time, helping them to form a family.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law