One of the issues that is gradually getting the attention of Ghanaians, especially the female population is the fight for increased maternity leave days from twelve 12 weeks (three months) to twenty-four 24 weeks (six months).
Women-interest organisations and other development agencies including the World Health Organisation are advocating a universal increase in the number of days granted to female employees during childbirth for breastfeeding and nursing purposes.
Conspicuously, the advocacy is silent on the impact of this proposition on employers and employment. This aspect of the debate is necessary to make the conversation complete so that the needs of all stakeholders will be addressed.
Several arguments have been made in support of the six months’ maternity leave. These include, prevention of stunted growth in babies arising from inadequate breast-feeding and general care to comparatively higher maternity leave days in neighboring countries like Togo, Burkina Faso, La Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria where women enjoying some 14 weeks; and some European countries like Italy (up to 5 months); Spain (16 weeks); Canada (17 weeks) amongst others.
It is never in doubt that expectant and nursing mothers require special protection to prevent harm to their own health and that of their babies during child birth for which reason the 1992 constitutions per Article 27 has made provision that special care be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after birth.
The Labour Act 2003, (Act 651) has extended this protection to pregnant women to include; the prohibition of night work or overtime beyond 10pm; prohibition of assignment or task outside her place of residence after completing four months of pregnancy. The law also has it that in exceptional circumstances the period for maternity leave may be reasonably extended.
The practice in Ghana in accordance with law has thus been, pregnant or nursing mothers enjoy 12 weeks as maternity leave. Subsequently, nursing mothers return to work for half-day for another 6 to 9 months till the baby’s first year’s anniversary, maximum. In addition to this, women are generally able to take their annual leaves that may be due, to extend their maternity leave periods (depending on the contingencies of the organization.
All of these provisions avail to pregnant women and lactating mothers a period of one-year to balance work and home demands, an adjustment which comes at a cost to employers as this category of staff continue to benefit fully from any or all entitlements despite the legitimacy of the lacuna and corresponding shortfall in work output created by their absence.
As supervisors of staff and employers, managing staff absence from work viz-a-viz balancing productivity timelines can be quite challenging. Depending on the nature of the role of the staff on maternity leave, a backup alternative who will combine original task with the new addition over a six-months period might is impossible, not to mention the uneconomic option of hiring a replacement on temporary basis. Productivity is always affected, especially in smaller organizations with small staff population. The situation becomes even more complex, where the nursing mother involved is a key staff.
Another question that should inform the conversation is the possibility that a lactating mother returns to work from ‘6’ months maternity leave with another pregnancy… and an employer is faced with another 6 months pending leave.
Imagine a bank branch manager or any other business granting 6 months maternity leave to two or more staff members concurrently, or in sequence should a staff choose to exercise her right to have 4 or more children. What will be the overall effect on productivity on an organization whose female staff within the age bracket of childbirth constitute 40% of its employees?
These are realities that can make the hiring of women unattractive to employers, and as women push for more maternity leave days, they should be mindful of possible negative repercussions.
The hidden reality
Employers accept the simple fact that it takes people to achieve targets. They also try as much as possible to sidestep all probable but avoidable interferences that have the potential to impair the realization of set objectives than to deal with them.
The hidden reality is that even with the current 12 weeks maternity leave, similar experiences are pushing most employers who are faced with the options to select from among equal male and female job seekers to eliminate the young women for the young men, unless in exceptional circumstances.
There is therefore a humble presupposition that if maternity leave is increased from 12 weeks to 24 weeks it shall have adverse effect on the employment of women especially in this era of mass redundancy.
Let’s remember that diagnosis in error, will lead to a prescription in error. Perhaps, we can take a few steps back to re-commence the conversation of this 6 months leave within the Ghanaian context.