Why I deem the law on maternity leave unfair

It is unrealistic for the law to expect mothers to take their full maternity leave without a salary.

I have a colleague who was almost 40 weeks pregnant, and she still came to work every day to clean the office and make us coffee. She loves what she does, and she is very good at it, but her work requires her to be on her feet the whole day. Luckily, we have hired a temp to take over the heavy duty work while she can sit and do the filing.

An important question, in this case, is when is it a good time to take maternity leave? Another important element of this conversation is the employer’s responsibility with regards to maternity leave. I then started thinking a lot about the South African (SA) Labour Law, particularly around maternity leave.

Did you know that employers are not obliged to pay an employee during maternity leave? Our SA Labour Law says that new moms do not have to receive their salaries from their employers for the complete duration of their leave.

If they pay your full salary, then you are one of the very few women that do not have to stress about finances while preparing to take care of a new human being. The financial aspect might be the very reason my colleague is still working. She went for her appointment on Monday and the doctor told her that she could give birth any day.

I usually talk to my pregnant mommies about pregnancy not being a disability. This means that we are fully capable of running the world while carrying multiple heartbeats in a single body. But we don’t have to prove anything to anyone, so it’s okay to sit at home a couple of weeks before childbirth.

Newborns shake our whole world and we need to be in a good space – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Plus, we need a lot of rest. Resting, though, is not an easy decision to make when you know you will have no source of income while you sit at home and treat your swollen feet.

The biggest shocker was her telling us that she will only be at home for a month with her newborn because she needs to come back and earn a living. Legally, she is required to take at least six weeks before she gets back to work. I personally felt deprived of time after spending five months at home with my baby. I would have been okay with two more months (wishful thinking). We had our time to bond, and luckily I did not have to worry too much about receiving my salary during my leave.

My previous company was covering a small portion of my salary during my maternity leave, and the rest of the money was received from the Department of Labour as I was paying the UIF which has a maternity benefit. This, though, is another process on its own. My sister only started receiving her UIF maternity benefit from the Department of Labour months after she went back to work. She is not the only person that experienced this. I have been in conversations with numerous other parents who experienced the same. The biggest complain about the Department of Labour’s process is how tedious it is. Besides having to go to their office every month, the documentation process is also quite heavy. Women sometimes are turned back because they did not fill the forms out properly. We sometimes have to be in touch with previous employers and fill out endless employment details.

This does not mean everyone struggles to receive their UIF maternity benefit though. Through the help of Sweet Dreamz, I managed to receive my money on time. The process becomes seamless when you are working with people that understand the process. I sent them all my documents, and if they are filled out incorrectly, they would let me know before submission. I paid a once-off fee od R550 in 2017 for their service. I submitted my documents once with them, and I received my money consistently for four months. Not all parents have the privilege of taking out this money, especially because they are preparing for a new baby.

Is the system flawed, or do moms put themselves under unnecessary financial pressure?

Imagine how many single moms work in jobs that don’t pay them a salary during maternity leave, and imagine how many of those are back at work a few weeks after their children are born. Those few weeks of new human life are critical and stressful. The last thing mothers need to worry about is money.

My colleague still has a genuine fear of staying home and she still walks around the office taking coffee orders. This is crunch time for her, and self-care is very important. Legally, women can take leave up to six weeks before the baby’s due date. They are entitled to four months’ maternity leave.

A lot of women push to take their maternity leave later in their pregnancy so that they can spend more time with the baby, rather than to sit around at home and wait for the baby’s birth. SA law protects the rights of pregnant women, but to what extent is this regarded fair/moral practice? Is it fair for a woman to stay without a salary for three or four months while at home?

I feel that the law is on the side of the employer. It is unrealistic for the law to expect mothers to take their full maternity leave without a salary. It is equally unrealistic to think that these women can fully rely on the government’s subsidy when some moms wait over a year for this money.

Someone needs to re-look this condition of employment and come up with a better alternative.

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