Push to change South Africa’s paid maternity leave policy

 ·16 Jun 2022

Companies in South Africa focused on employee-centric propositions have embraced global maternity leave policies over country-specific policies, says Nicol Mullins, executive committee member of the South African Reward Association (SARA).

Mullins said that the Covid-19 pandemic raised critical health issues around employee well-being and safety, as well as remote work and alternate workforce arrangements. It altered the way South African businesses treat their employees.

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

The executive member of SARA said that most businesses respect their employee’s right to time away from the workplace. Despite this, new mothers might feel pressured to resume work as soon as possible rather than taking time off to bond with their newborns. Mullin said that this could be a result of living in an ‘always-on’ working environment.

“The South African reality is often one of single parenting, predominantly by women. Based on financial circumstances and a system that does not function optimally, they are forced to go back to work earlier than they would prefer to make ends meet,” said Mullins.

Inequality against women

A study by the reward management platform, Remchannel, pointed to rising inequality against women over maternity leave.

The study, conducted in 2021, found that while 60% of the Employee Benefits survey participants provided fully paid maternity leave for the minimum required 4-month period, 24% indicated that an employee wouldn’t receive a salary during her maternity leave.

Remchannel managing director René Richter said the 24% amounted to a regression of 7 basis points since 2019. This could in part be due to difficult trading conditions from persistent low economic growth over several years and the sudden emergence of Covid-19.

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) makes provision for both paid and unpaid maternity leave, and the choice is defined by each company’s maternity leave policy. The Act also makes provision for employees to claim UIF during the period, however, it’s only a portion of their remuneration.

“Many organisations in following the letter of the law aren’t fully aware of unintended consequences. Unpaid maternity leave places a major financial burden on the family unit at a time when it’s crucial to have access to these funds,” said Richter.

“The consequence of this is that the family would probably need to obtain loans, and this has a longer-term impact on financial recovery. As the major caregiver, it also by implication means that more than one pregnancy in a woman’s career will impact financial wellbeing as well as career progression over a period of time.”

Global research indicates that about 50% of women feel their careers were negatively impacted due to pregnancy. According to the 2021 PwC Women in Work Index, progress for women in the workplace regressed to 2017 levels due to Covid-19, which saw a large number of women leave formal employment.

Richter said with such stark workplace inequalities, companies are missing an opportunity to create a compelling employee value proposition that would attract and retain highly skilled and sought-after women.

“The advantage of changing to a paid maternity leave policy will mean that women no longer have to choose between a career and having a family. They’ll be able to enjoy the time with their newborn baby without financial concerns,” said Richter.

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

In addition, Richter said companies need to adopt a contemporary approach to hiring, promote open dialogue, and most importantly, make leaders responsible for recognising bias and hold them accountable to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion. While these measures may by implication carry an additional cost, they could be phased in.

‘Although compliance with the BCEA is seen as the minimum requirement, consideration must be given to the consequences and whether the practice addresses inequality, said Richter.

Mullins said that South Africa has not seen a change in maternity leave in quite some time and typically lags behind many other countries. To develop employment practices, top-down legislation will enable organisations to adopt a global approach.

“Decisions are often made based on two considerations, legal or principle. We have seen that the majority of organisations follow the lower set legal bar when defining leave policies. Practically, change in legislation will drive changes in policy,” said Mullins.

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

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

How South Africa compares globally

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

He added that Nordic countries and the UK lead with maternity leave of roughly 52 weeks per annum being made available to employees.

“Some Nordic countries offer shared parental leave. Organisations adopting a global approach have rolled out maternity leave that far exceeds local legislative requirements.”

Shared maternity or ‘parental leave’ in the Nordics can get close to a full year of paid leave or a slight reduction of around 80%.

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

In South Africa, if you have been contributing to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), you are eligible for a maternity benefit of up to a maximum of 60% of your remuneration depending on your income level.

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

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

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