You may think that the issue of maternity leave is A Problem For The Future, something to worry about when the time comes and really, what is there to worry about? You get pregnant, you take your year off, and then you come back to work, baby safely stashed in a nursery somewhere.
But did you know that maternity leave in the UK is, for lack of a better word, abysmal? The UK has one of the poorest maternity leave plans in the developed world (34th, trailing slovenly behind countries with far lower GDPs). Currently, the government will give mothers six weeks – so a month and a half – at 90% of what your salary would be. This then drops to either £148.68 a week or 90% of your weekly earnings, whichever is lower, for 33 weeks (about seven and a half months). For the remainder of the year – which you’re totally entitled to take if you haven’t resorted to feeding yourself cold baked beans from a can by then – there’s nothing.
This is all well and good if there’s a well-earning partner in the background, bringing home enough to keep the three of you afloat. But for, say, a single mum in London, £148.68 a week might just about cover rent.
Of course, many employers have maternity packages that will boost these statutory payments. But with more and more people becoming freelance, and as wages stagnate and rents rise, making it harder for people to save ahead, Labour’s latest election promise is more important now than ever.
Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary today unveiled a “series of reforms to transform the workplace for women.”
Among promises involving fining companies who don’t report their gender pay gap (or take adequate measures to close it), the right to choose flexible working hours, and implementing menopause workplace policies, the party promised to increase statutory maternity pay from nine to 12 months, allowing “all working mothers or parents to spend a full year with their newborn babies before going back to work.”
“I’m sick of how women are treated at work,” Butler said. “Audits aren’t enough, we know there’s a problem that needs fixing. So we will do something about it.”
While a much-needed step in the right direction, campaigners say they wish the promise could have gone further. Aceil Haddad from Pregnant Then Screwed told Refinery29: “We absolutely welcome the interest in making the lives of women better in the workplace.” However, she says the promise does not tackle the cultural gender imbalance. “We are still addressing it as ‘maternity pay’ not ‘parental leave’ which means the onus is still on the woman.”
To properly address the gender balance, she says, “We need men to feel able to take up parental leave, we need to change the culture around it otherwise it doesn’t really have an impact.”
Labour is currently the only party advocating for a change in maternity leave. The Conservatives were quiet on the issue in their 2017 manifesto and have been ever since. But with party manifestos on the way, it remains to be seen if any more promises will be made.
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