Addressing Pregnancy & Maternity Related Issues in the Workplace

Childbearing is an essential part of the cycle of life for women and their families and is vital to every society. With women becoming key players in the corporate and public sectors, good policies and proper enforcement surrounding childbearing and maternity leave are essential, more especially so for a developing nation such as ours.

Over the years, women roles have changed and much like Western countries, African women are now active across both public and corporate sectors (Theresa Lee Sherman, Amelia Ward, Mary Brownell, Ruth Perry, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, etc.). Yet, despite these significant achievements for women, there’s still some discrimination against working women who are pregnant in Liberia and it is amazing that in this modern day and age how intolerant some people tend to be towards employees who become pregnant on the job. Some women are reportedly even threatened and bullied which brings about job insecurity when the mere thought of becoming pregnant arises. A few months back, someone told me a situation where she was afraid for her job because her boss recently found out she was pregnant and wasn’t keen on keeping her since he would have to pay 3 “free” months for her while “ she did nothing but stay home and sleep”.

While this may seem trivial to some, this is a sad reality for many working women today in Liberia. A short time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who mentioned that he recently discovered that his housekeeper is pregnant and that he intends to pay her off at the end of the month because he doesn’t feel she will be able to comfortably and efficiently do her duties. I immediately said “that’s discrimination, you can’t do that”. He laughed and said “aye, why did I have to mention this in front this HR woman”.

For those who aren’t aware, “Maternity leave” is considered the time a woman is given off from work after she gives birth. However, due to differing medical conditions or because of discomfort or the desire for time to prepare, some women may take theirs a bit earlier. After a woman gives birth, time is needed to recuperate, rest and to bond with the child and provide the much needed breastfeeding infants require. Maternity leave is also important because it provides the time most women need to be able to transition back into the working environment. A lot of us Africans tend to overlook how postpartum depression affects women, but it is something crucial that has been proven time and again. Also, with the high rate of infant mortality in a developing country such as ours, (72 out of every 1,000 according to the mundi index) the need for maternal care in the early months of the child’s life cannot be overly emphasize.

Progress is being made to address maternity leave  and work environment for pregnant women and the current Liberian labor law states  “ a female expecting the birth is a child shall be granted a maternity leave by her employer for a period of three months, which shall commence before and expire after her confinement… employee is entitled to full wages…”

I have seen the draft revised law which is called the “Decent Work Bill” and I was a bit impressed with the new addition for pregnant employees which provides for 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, provided proof of her condition is made available to employer, along with two 30 minutes nursing breaks each day or one sixty minute break (besides lunch breaks) till the child is twelve months old. The new law also makes provision for possible extension of the maternity leave if a medical doctor certifies that there is a complication that prohibits the employee from returning to work after the 14 weeks period. However, the extension will be unpaid. The new law also provides for paternity leave for new fathers, however, paternity will be unpaid.

Its one thing to have a law and it’s quite another story entirely to enforce or educate people against discrimination. In most instances, these are things that are considered the acceptable norm.  Many will be shocked to know that there are some women who are not aware they are entitled to maternity leave and what it means.

There is no arguing or disputing that the workflow may be affected due to a key employee taking 3-4 months of maternity leave, however, with proper planning and coordination, the void could be easily filled by making use of interns, or training someone else who performs similar tasks as the pregnant employee to cover during that period. This could also be an opportunity to cross train other employees in your organization. It is also easy to understand and on some level relate to some employers’ concerns regarding the possible disruption to the flow of work when an employee becomes pregnant because for many women, pregnancy comes with fatigue, low energy levels, monthly days off for pre-natal check-ups, forgetfulness, etc. it is also key for employers to ensure they provide a safe environment for pregnant (all employees in fact) employees and avoid exposure to second hand smoke, harsh chemicals, and any hazardous condition.  I must say though that pregnancy should not be an excuse for abject laziness, poor customer service or incompetency.

For those who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant soon or know someone who is and who may not know what the legal statures are regarding maternity leave the Law allows you a period of 3 months of paid absence and you cannot be dismissed because you are pregnant. The law states “if it is proven that a female employee has been dismissed for such a reason, she shall be entitled to compensation for wrongful dismissal, which shall not be less than three months’ salary. “

I am hoping that the Ministry of Labor has a good sensitization program lined up to educate the labor work force, managers, human resource practitioners on some of the new and existing laws that will help curtail, reduce and avoid labor malpractice in the country and try harder to enforce where necessary. It will also be a good thing to be more pro-active on sending out labor inspectors to various institutions for periodic inspections.

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