Meager Maternity Leave Burdens Working Women


Meager Maternity Leave Burdens Working Women
APRIL 1998
Vol. 108 No. 1



The effects of capitalism reach into every corner of our lives. Marilyn Gardner, writing for THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, recently discussed one corner that isn't talked about much -- the lack of adequate maternity benefits for working women. In the context of her article, "benefits" refers to the chance for a new mother to take time off her job to be with the baby. She derived her information from a study of 152 nations, published by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization (ILO). She concentrated on the relatively poor benefits available to U.S. workers.

The ILO study revealed that most countries mandate paid maternity leaves, while the United States and six other countries do not. Looking at a variety of nations, the study showed that 28 weeks are available to workers in the Czech Republic, 24 weeks in Hungary, 5 months in Italy and 17 weeks in Canada. In the United States, women are only entitled to 12 weeks of UNPAID leave, and that only if they work for a company with more than 50 employees. Of course, U.S. agricultural workers, domestic workers and temporary employees are usually offered no maternity benefits at all.

Worse, many U.S. women don't take the full 12 weeks because they can't do without a paycheck for that long. Lack of the mother's income can be very hard on working-class families. In this country, women bring in half or more of the income in 55 percent of the families and lesser, but still significant, proportions of the income in other cases. These families just cannot afford a 12-week unpaid leave for the mother.

Other women shorten their available leaves because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Women aren't openly fired for becoming pregnant -- some other reason is generally given. It happens just the same. Nearly everyone knows somebody who lost her job because of "excessive" time taken off due to pregnancy or the new baby's needs.

Gardner didn't furnish any statistics on the frequency of such events, but they seem to occur all over the world. The ILO study found only 29 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, that prohibit firing a woman because of pregnancy.

She also didn't discuss the effects of such limited maternity leaves. They are most unpleasant. Most mothers-to-be want to spend as much time as possible with the new child, and so choose to stay on the job as long as possible. Many work until their labor pains start. While some women feel good during the last weeks of their pregnancy, others do not. It has become commonplace to see pregnant women, with shortness of breath, swelled ankles and dark circles around their eyes, doggedly plugging away at the workplace. They should be taking frequent rests and building up their physical reserves. Instead, they are tied to machines of production, creating wealth for the capitalists to steal, for as long as possible.

The effects on children are even more serious. Child psychologists uniformly recommend that a baby and its primary caregiver (usually the mother) be together most of the day for the first six months, and longer if possible. This amount of time is needed to securely knit the bond between child and parent and to insure that the child can form other close bonds when it grows older. It is feared that a child that is deprived of such nurturing will be unable to adequately nurture the next generation.

What will become of our families in the future?

Gardner argues, with good reason, that working women in the United States receive less in the way of maternity benefits than those in most other countries. Her suggested remedy for the situation is to reform employers and to persuade them to be nicer.

But missionary work among employers won't remedy the situation. The roots of the problem lie within the basis of the capitalist system -- creation of wealth for a few by exploitation of all workers. Under this system, employers view workers as generators of profits and will "give" whatever is necessary to keep the profits rolling in, but not more. This is true in all countries. U.S. workers may have been less aggressive in demanding benefits from their employers because, in spite of the crowing on Wall Street, they know that their economic situation is precarious. Downsizing, layoffs, unemployment and poorly paying replacement jobs are a fact of life in this country. U.S. workers are just too insecure to be demanding.

It is also a fact that, while capitalists may cherish their own children, they aren't fond of working-class children. They see a worker's family as competitors that may take up a worker's time and energy, resources that the employer wants an opportunity to consume. There is an ongoing tug of war between our children and our bosses. All too often our children lose the contest.

Gardner seems to think that it is a shame that U.S. women have such a difficult time of it. In fact, her article is entitled "Why Do Americans Get Short-Changed on Maternity Leave?" The women of the working class in this country do carry a very heavy load, and it is a shame as well as a crime. However, in spite of laws and governmental rules, women all over the globe are suffering. Supporting a pregnancy and the capitalist class at the same time is a terrible burden, in any place and in any season.

It should be obvious to even the most casual observer that the interests of the family are directly opposite the interests of the capitalists. If we as workers controlled production and distribution of goods, the wealth we created with our labor could be used to meet all of our needs. We could allocate our resources to the areas we considered most important. We could surround our children with the love and attention of entire families, without fear of want.

But we can't do that as long as we are burdened with capitalism.