Surprising! No paid maternity leave in US

February 22, 1998

Normally, I do not bother much to think about the unbelievable, surely it is more profitable to think about the thinkable.

However, on Presidents' Day holiday (Feb 16), I read something unthinkable: that Americans live in a nation where there is no paid maternity leave. Surprise, surprise!

The super-everything and the know-all American nation has divided the universe into many worlds tailored, of course, to suit the American (and Western) outlook. The Third World where you and I live, is usually to them underdeveloped. The First World is the haven where whites generally live, like the Americans and Europeans and their off-shoots such as the Aussies, New Zealanders and Canadians. The Second World consists of the former communist powers and China, with which the First World (also referred to as the Free World or Western democracies) was intermittently in a state of cold war until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even in what the French call Tiers Monde, such as Sudan, Cameroon and Nepal, it is mandatory for a woman to receive her salary or wages while she is caring for her newborn; her government provides her benefits through social welfare systems, some requiring the employers to pay. Like us in Malaysia, the employer must give you paid maternity leave, I think, for 42 days. Well, that is what Fauzah told me and she could be well wrong - I mean about the length of maternity leave - because the last time she took it was in 1974!

The United Nations made news last week, besides the saga about the cat and mouse game between its weapons inspectors and Iraq, when an International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey said that the super-everything power, the United States, is one of the six nations that does not have a national policy requiring paid maternity leave.

A chirpy West Asian ambassador, his well-manicured fingers stabbing the air several times said: "At last I can tell the whole wide world that Washington is also a third world nation like Lesotho and Papua New Guinea where women giving birth are not paid for the family's and baby's survival."

The Americans and the other culprit nations - Australia and New Zealand - sometimes have the cheek to lecture us on how we should treat our women. What impertinence!

In a study entitled "Maternity Protection at Work" as summarised by the New York Times (Feb 16), the authors of the survey said the study was undertaken because of the importance of women's salary for family survival.

The culprit nations are the United States Australia and New Zealand joined by such disparate Third World nations such as Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. The study found that women contributed half or more of the family income in about 30% of the households in the nations studied in the United States, the figure is 55% and in Europe, four percent higher than the US.

The ILO estimated that in 12 years time, the number of women who work during their childbearing years in the industralised nations would rise to about 81% from the 73% and in the "other worlds", it is expected to rise from 63% tp 68%.

While rights are written into law in many countries all is not rosy for women said one of the authors, Ann Herbert, because there was a wide gap between law and practice, adding that widespread discrimination was found to exist on jobs against women who became pregnant.

How very true, and very sad.

How can any man who practices this discrimination put on the best possible face and not be ashamed when they recall their mothers, wives and lovers-in-residence in that state?

The labour agency adopted its first global standards in 1919 to protect working women who become pregnant. In 1952, the standard was strengthened with a call for a minimum 12-week leave with a woman being paid at a certain rate and receiving full health insurance while she is on leave.

But only 36 countries have signed the international accord. The United States which has outlawed discrmination against pregnant women, is not one of them!