Maternity and paternity leave (including adoption leave) is paid leave that an employee is entitled to, in order to care for their newborn or recently adopted child. The period of such leave varies in different countries, and generally includes both a legally enforceable maternity leave and maternity pay. Some employees have employment contracts that are more generous.
Maternity leave and pay were originally designed to protect the health of mothers and children by providing adequate medical and nursing care in childbirth, to lessen the financial burden of childbearing and ensure a reasonable period free from excessive labour. They vary from systems which consist primarily of paid time off work to those which include medical, nursing and in some cases, help with domestic labour.
Social responsibility for women’s health during childbearing was first recognised through the 1911 National Insurance Act. It included a universal maternal health benefit and a one off maternity grant of 30 shillings for insured women. In 2010, this would have purchased goods that were worth £119.
The universal maternal benefit brought maternity rights onto the political agenda, but the early efforts centred on maternal and child health. Women’s participation in industry during WWII resulted in some recognition of women’s caring responsibilities and the ‘second shift’ undertaken by women carrying out paid work as well as unpaid domestic work. The number of nursery schools in the UK grew phenomenally during WWII - from 14 in 1940 to 1,345 in 1943 to help women to juggle work and childcare. But these provisions were temporary, and the concept of formal maternity leave remained firmly off the agenda.
Despite the gradual decline of the ‘marriage bar’ between the 1940s and late 60s, women in the UK were still facing discrimination. Many women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant till the late 1970s. During the 1970s, the provision of maternity leave had been introduced in many European countries. In 1974, Sweden introduced cross-gender parental leave (available to both parents) into law.
The UK introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975, which was extended through further legislation, such as The Employment Act 1980. However, for the first 15 years, only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment. In 1993, coverage was extended to all working women, in order to bring Britain into compliance with a European Commission directive on this issue. In 2003, male employees received paid statutory paternity leave for the first time, an entitlement that was extended in January 2010.
The law in the UK in 2013
In the UK employees can take up to 52 weeks of Statutory Maternity Leave, of which the first two weeks after the baby is born is ‘compulsory’ maternity leave (4 weeks for women who work in a factory). This leave is divided into a two 26-week periods. After the first 26 weeks, the father of the child (or the mother’s partner) has the right to take up to 26 weeks’ leave if their partner returns to work, in effect taking the place of the mother at home. Eligible employees can take similar periods of Statutory Adoption Leave. It is unlawful to dismiss (or single out for redundancy) a pregnant employee for reasons connected with her pregnancy.
So long as employees follow rules about notifying their employer about the pregnancy, they are also be entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), depending on their length of service and a minimum average earnings of £107 per week. SMP is paid for up to 39 weeks, with the first six weeks paid at 90% of full pay and the remainder at a fixed rate (£135.45 as of 2012) or 90% of your average weekly earnings. A spouse or partner of the woman (including same-sex relationships) may request a two week paid (at a fixed rate) paternity leave.
Limitations and directions for the future
In the UK, maternity and paternity leave is still not shared equally between parents. Despite the changes which allow fathers to take up to 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave for children born on or after 3 April 2011, this provision has not been utilised much by new fathers. This is partly because of cultural assumptions which perceive childcare as a woman’s job. Additionally, there are financial reasons why the take-up has been low. This leave was paid at only £128.73 a week in 2012. Given average wages, this often means that many families consider it is better that (the usually) lower paid women take the leave rather than higher earning men.
Despite strong employment legislation that protects pregnant women from discrimination, half of the 440,000 pregnant women in 2004-5 experienced discrimination in Great Britain, with 30,000 being forced out of their jobs altogether. Of those, only 3% took their case to tribunal (EOC 2005).
On 13 November 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced plans to reform the law in this area from 2015, enabling mothers and fathers to "share" almost all of the parental leave. From 2015, parents will be given the right to share the care of their child in the first year after birth. Women in employment will retain their right to 52 weeks of maternity leave. Only mothers will be allowed to take leave in the first two weeks' leave after birth. But after that parents can divide up the rest of the maternity leave.