Economic crisis lends unexpected support to families in some countries. An ILO report says a surprising side effect of the crisis in some countries was a lift to families, including better benefits for maternity and parental leave

13 May 2014, Geneva (ILO News) — Contrary to expectations, the global economic crisis served to boost support to families in some countries, according to an ILO report, Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and practice across the world.

The report said the crisis, which started in 2008, brought both cuts to public spending, as well as positive change on work-family policies.

As part of fiscal consolidation drives, some countries, including Estonia and Lithuania, reduced the period of maternity and paternity leave or the level of benefits, if only temporarily. In other countries, such as Greece, Latvia and Romania reduction in the level of the minimum wage or weakening of the system of collective bargaining due to new laws following fiscal consolidation measures resulted in an erosion of the level of maternity benefits.

The report also found that maternity discrimination persists around the world, exacerbated in many instances by the economic crisis.

In Croatia, Italy and Portugal there were reports of the use of “blank resignations” — undated resignation letters that workers are forced to sign upon hiring. These are then used to dismiss them if they become pregnant or are faced with a long-term illness or family responsibilities. In Spain, the crisis was blamed for cases of maternity-related job dismissals and or harassment.

Kick-start from the crisis

However, many countries actually raised the level of support to families during the crisis in the form of access to early childhood education and care and tax credits, as well as increases in the duration, scope and levels of benefits for maternity and parental leave. Such countries included Australia, France, Germany, Norway, Poland and Slovakia.

China extended maternity leave from 90 to 98 days in 2011 and Chile shifted postnatal parental leave for women from 18 to 30 weeks. El Salvador hiked income compensation from 75 to 100 per cent during the 12-week maternity leave for working mothers registered with the Salvadorian Social Security Institute.

“This acted as a countercyclical measure by preventing living conditions for these women and their families from deteriorating,” said Laura Addati one of the report’s authors who is also Maternity Protection and Work-family Specialist at the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch.

Positive paternity developments

The report noted positive developments in paternity and parental leave schemes intended to increase the number of men taking advantage of them.

Australia introduced paid paternity leave of 14 days in 2013. In Norway, the paternity quota was extended from 12 to 14 weeks since July, 2013.

That same year, Singapore introduced a one-week paternity leave paid by public funds at 100 per cent of previous earnings with a relatively high ceiling. However, since the benefit is restricted to married fathers with Singaporean citizenship, it excludes the large population of migrant workers.

Addati said: “These schemes point to the trend towards greater involvement by men in family responsibilities. At the same time, they reflect that economic turmoil calls for creative responses by both families and governments, including added support for women’s participation in the labour force.”