The presidential campaign season is well underway in the United States, and never in human history will more money be spent to say less. And only 16 more months to go.
A perennial favorite of the worst electoral system money can buy is the race among the candidates to be the most in favor of motherhood and apple pie. Not actually do something to make it easier to balance personal life and work, of course, but to send endless platitudes into the void. To put this in context, here is the complete list of all the countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave for women workers:
* Papua New Guinea
* United States of America
The International Labour Organization reports that 183 countries and territories on which it has information provide cash benefits to women on maternity leave; the two listed above do not. The ILO report, “Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world,” found that although not all countries reach its standard of at least two-thirds of pay for at least 14 weeks, almost half of the world’s countries do, including 25 of the 29 developed countries in which ILO researchers were able to make an assessment. [page 19] (Canada, Iceland and Slovakia are the others.)
The geographic region with the best results is Eastern Europe/Central Asia, where 88 percent of countries exceeded the ILO maternity-leave standards and every one at least equaled the standard. [page 18] This result isn’t surprising, as these countries were mostly part of the Soviet bloc. Women on maternity leave in the Soviet Union received full pay up to 112 days, partial pay up to 18 months, and unpaid leave from 18 to 36 months, according to a Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research paper. Maternity-leave benefits achieved during the communist era in countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have largely been retained.
That doesn’t mean all was well; women workers in the Soviet Union from the 1960s on earned about 70 percent of what men did, and industries with the highest concentrations of women tended to be those with the lowest pay. Then again, that is not much worse than today in the United States, where women earn 78 percent of what men earn. Canadian women earn about 74 percent of what Canadian men take home.
Leave for both parents
Of course, there is more to family-friendly work policies than conditions of maternity leave. Only about half of the world’s countries provide paternity leave; neither the U.S. nor Canada is among them. Although the ILO has not established a standard for paternity leave, the organization encourages it. The “Maternity and paternity at work” report says:
“Research suggests that fathers’ leave, men’s take-up of family responsibilities and child development are related. Fathers who take leave, especially those taking two weeks or more immediately after childbirth, are more likely to be involved with their young children. This is likely to have positive effects for gender equality in the home, which is the foundation of gender equality at work.” [page 52]
One way of encouraging gender equality is to provide for parental leave, where either parent can take it, or in the case of countries such as Sweden and Norway, some of the parental leave must be taken by the father. The ILO’s report says:
“As countries move toward greater gender equality in their legislation and policies, most countries are setting out parental leave as a shared entitlement, where either the mother or the father has the right to take parental leave and the parents determine the allocation of leave themselves. Countries adopting this approach include Albania, Cuba, Estonia, Finland, New Zealand, Uzbekistan and many others. …
“Sweden was the first country to grant men and women equal access to paid parental leave in 1974. Few men took parental leave, however, so, in 1995, Sweden introduced a non-transferable ‘daddy’s month’ and extended this leave to two months in 2002, with pay at 80 percent of income. Norway also has a non-transferable leave period of 14 weeks to encourage men’s take-up of childcare responsibilities. Germany and Portugal too provide non-transferable allocations of paid parental leave for fathers.” [page 62]
More help in difficult times
In contrast, in the United States, parental leave is a privilege attached to your job, just as with health care (where health care is far more expensive than every other developed country. Only 9 percent of companies in the U.S. offer paid maternity-leave benefits, down from 16 percent in 2008. Lest we pin this reduction on the ongoing economic crisis in which the world has been mired since 2008, the ILO report found that several European countries, along with others such as Chile and El Salvador, actually increased the levels of government support to families, and in 2010 Australia introduced paid universal parental leave for the first time. [page 28]
Those countries that already provided generous benefits haven’t reduced them. Sweden provides 480 days of paid parental leave, prenatal care through free or subsidized courses, and allows parents pushing infants and toddlers in prams and buggies to ride for free on public buses. Norway provides 49 weeks of paid parental leave at 100 percent of income or 59 weeks at 80 percent of income.
The only legal requirement in the U.S. is the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act — if you can’t afford to be without a wage, too bad. A Senate bill with 19 sponsors, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, has been introduced that would provide up to two-thirds of pay for 12 weeks, capped at $4,000 per month, paid for by contributions by employers and employees. By contrast, most countries that provide paid parental leave do so through government benefits.
No Republicans have offered to co-sponsor this bill, and not one of the 17 candidates vying for the Republican Party nomination is in favor. The Family and Medical Leave Act was bitterly opposed by George H.W. Bush when he was president, who vetoed it twice, and his son, current Republican establishment favorite Jeb Bush, shows no more inclination to align actions with rhetoric. When governor of Florida, Jeb Bush’s big initiative was to privatize the foster-care system, which handed big profits to corporations, and which took “a pretty well-functioning system and blew it to bits,” according to one case worker.
When “the market” is allowed to decide social questions, it shouldn’t be a surprise that corporate profits, not human needs, are the priorities.