Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The International Labour Organisation and Maternity Rights: Evaluating the Potential for Progress

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The International Labour Organisation and Maternity Rights: Evaluating the Potential for Progress

Article excerpt

The fifth item on the agenda of the International Labour Conference at its 87th session held in Geneva in 1999 was the issue of maternity protection at work. The decision to reconsider the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised) 1952 (No. 103) and Recommendation, 1952 (No. 95) had been taken by the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1997. The report Maternity Protection at Work (ILO, 1997) was circulated to member states along with a questionnaire seeking views on the proposal to revise the convention. In line with International Labour Conference standing orders, member states were required to consult with key representatives of employers' and workers' organisations in preparing their responses. These responses are summarised and discussed in a further report (ILO, 1999).

Maternity protection in employment had been one of the earliest issues considered by the ILO. The Maternity Protection Convention (No. 3) was adopted at the first session of the International Labour Conference in 1919. This Convention was subsequently revised in 1952 in response to widespread changes in social security provisions among member states (ILO, 1997, 1). The decision to reconsider the provisions in the late 1990s was in part a response to dramatic changes in female labour force participation over the second half of the century. This has entailed not simply a growing proportion of women in paid employment, but, increasingly, their retention in the labour market during childbearing years (OECD, 1988; ILO, 1997, 5-7).

Under these circumstances, maternity protection is increasingly central to women's employment rights and a crucial instrument in the attempt to erode gender based employment inequality. However, reconsideration of the adequacy of current ILO provisions had to take place in a context in which ratification of existing conventions had been somewhat limited. As of June 1997, only 36 countries (out of 174) had ratified Maternity Protection Convention No 103 (ILO, 1997,1). In recognising the difficulty of producing an instrument widely acceptable to member states, the ILO has noted:

   A spirit of realism must therefore imbue the provisions of any new
   Convention ... A focus on commonly held principles, coupled with
   sufficient possibilities for governments and the social partners to
   work together to achieve goals in accordance with national
   conditions, may prove an effective means of ensuring safe motherhood
   and equitable employment conditions for working women. (1997,113)

The inevitable tension between advancement of standards and the need for a cooperative approach which recognises differences within and between nations is inherent in all ILO negotiations. It arises not just from the organisation's international focus but also its tripartite structure. Tripartism gives ILO decisions an authority derived from inclusion and consensus that would be lacking if only government representatives were involved. However, ' [i]t also implies that compromises must be made to accommodate the interests of all groups, as well as taking into account ideological or regional differences' (de la Cruz et al, 1996,10). Inevitably, employer and employee organisations bring different perspectives. Moreover, governments are unlikely to support standards that exceed their own provisions. These pressures mean that ILO standards are likely to be conservative, reflecting existing basic provisions rather than major advances.

This paper seeks to illustrate some of these tensions with reference to the revision of maternity protection in the context of what would be appropriate maternity rights standards for the twenty-first century. It is particularly concerned with the Australian case, and the potential to enhance maternity rights in this country. The following section considers the case for revision of ILO standards, and the likelihood of progress. Attention is then turned to Australia, its current maternity rights provisions and resistance to international standards on this issue. …

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