The government is soon to introduce a decree that entitles women employees up to six months maternity leave. The initiative, which will no doubt attracts sharp responses from employers and the broader public, could have a number of unintended consequences that would defeat its purpose. It could induce employers to take discreet steps that harm women, from avoiding to hire them to refraining from promoting them to managerial positions.
While the government’s intention is positive, it is wise to give full consideration to its likely implications that might hurt the very section of the society it aspires to empower and protect.
Paid maternity leave is generally intended to protect and support working women just before, during and immediately after childbirth. This safeguards the health of the mother and newborn child, while supporting women to cope with the physiological and psychological demands of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
The current law in Ethiopia guarantees a pregnant female worker a paid maternity leave of 30 consecutive days preceding the presumed date of delivery and additional two months of paid leave afterwards.
The length of maternity leave as provided in the existing law is generally considered to be in tune with international standards. The 12-week long maternity leave under the labor law is roughly comparable with the convention of the International Labor Organization (ILO); it is only short by two weeks. On average, maternity leave privilege for most European countries is between 14 and 16 weeks, while in some African countries it is even lower than 12 weeks, and not fully paid.
There is currently a draft maternity leave policy to double the required length of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks. This shows commendable concern on the part of the government for the health of women and their families. There are, however, a multitude of potential challenges that may undermine the efficacy of this noble national development goal. It is imperative to subject it to a closer look before it becomes decreed as a law.
Considering its widespread impact among employers and employees, there is a need for closer consultations with different stakeholders prior to attempting to enforce it. The policy will cost the government, the largest employer in the country, a huge amount of resources, including consequential damages and disruption in its effort at implementing other related development policies. It is particularly important to carefully consider its claimed benefits for female workers.
In fact, there is a very likely scenario that young women could be made worse off, as employers could avoid employing or promoting them, creating even greater gender imbalances in employment than what is presently exist in Ethiopia. The bill on maternity leave and benefit might undermine the rights of women for employment by reinforcing existing bias against them. If women workers would stay at home caring for their young for more than half a year, there is a risk that they could be pushed into traditional norms of childcare and housekeeping in our overly patriarchal society.
Social pressure can be mounted on them to capitulate their existing rights to work and fall into pre-established patterns. In a society where the man is the ’family head’ and thus the ‘bread winner,’ forcing mothers to stay home for several months might have subtle effects of re-enforcing gender bias that could reverse what progress has been achieved so far. The social consequences of this bill on women empowerment, therefore, should be carefully studied before it can be adopted on the claimed benefit for women.
Equally important is the industrial ramifications of the bill on women employment and empowerment. Women could lose if potential employers start to find them too costly to hire and retain. Employers can lawfully stay away from employing women, especially young ones, if they find them too expensive compared to their male counterparts.
Considering the high per capita child birth rate in Ethiopia compared to advanced countries, the business cost of hiring women relative to men can be very high. This could even affect the average wage rate of men workers, discouraging foreign investors who are attracted by cheaper labor costs. Local firms could also lose competitive advantage compared to other developing countries where maternity laws are less restrictive.
This can have notable effects of corroding the competitiveness of the country’s manufacturing sector that is increasingly geared towards export markets. If the country plans joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) is realized in the coming few years, the effects of loss in competitiveness by domestic firms can even be more damaging.
It is thus timely to pause and ponder if the level of development where Ethiopia is right now can support this kind of extensive social entitlements. It remains that the largest segment of the society works in agriculture and urban informal sectors, whereas a significant portion is either fully or only partially employed.
The most pressing need of the country at this point, therefore, is creating new employment opportunities that can absorb this work force. Building entrepreneurial culture and encouraging the entry and growth of new and dynamic businesses should be the prime target of the government. Promulgating labor laws that undermine the competitiveness of existing businesses will not be an answer to the country’s pressing employment needs. Grand welfare provisions meant to protect the very few women working in the formal sector can undermine the employment opportunities of tens of millions of women that are yet to find any employment.
There is a risk that the law will suffer the destiny as the National Social Health Insurance Scheme, which is on now on the edge of failure. It is perhaps best if the bill adopts a ‘four-month’ maternity leave since it is in line with the ILO Convention. Alternatively, the draft law can be modified to give women a shorter period of paid maternity leave along with additional benefits in the form of daily breaks for breastfeeding, shorter working hours, or benefits for childcare. It could also protect nursing women from laborious or other difficult jobs, while also provisioning employer support for basic sanitation.
To balance the cost of hiring women with that of men, the law needs to consider decreeing at least three weeks of paternity leave for fathers. This can not only allow families to provide proper childcare for their newborns, but also reduces the gender bias that currently tends to see childcare as purely a mother’s duty. While allowing both parents to share the duty of caring for their family, a law of paternity leave can also be less detrimental for women, since they will not be significantly costly to hire compared to men.
There are various affirmative actions the government can introduce to enhance women’s rights without significantly hampering the business and gender-related dynamics in the country. I strongly believe that a measured approach supported by comprehensive inputs from major stakeholders like employers and spouses can help avoid unintended adverse effects, while also reducing resistance during policy implantation.
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