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Eastern/Central Europe: Countries In Transition Cut Benefits

London, 23 February 1998 (RFE/RL)) -- A new report by the International Labor Organization says Eastern and Central European countries have cut back on maternity benefits, particularly cash payments to mothers, due to economic restructuring.

The report, Maternity Protection at Work, says paid maternity leave is now on the statute books of more than 120 countries worldwide, a "striking" improvement compared with 50 years ago. But it also says that progress has not been uniform because of cuts to the traditionally extensive maternity benefits of Central and Eastern Europe, and violations of women's labor rights in Russia.

The report says many women in Eastern Europe have lost their jobs, and hence no longer fulfill qualifying conditions for cash maternity benefits, following the deregulation of labor markets, and the erosion of social security and employment protection.

The report also says previously extensive child-care systems in Central and Eastern Europe are being circumscribed by the closure of centers and the charging of high fees. (A sociological study also showed there has been a return to "traditional values", encouraging many women to stay at home to look after their children).

Officials in Russia say violations of women's labor rights have soared in recent years. The illegal firing of women during maternity leave or during nursing "has become a common fact, particularly when enterprises are restructured or change ownership."

Forecasts say the proportion of women of child-bearing age in the workforce will continue to rise. By 2010, 80 percent of women aged 24-50 in the industrialized countries will be working outside the home. Globally, the proportion will be some 70 percent.

The ILO report analyzes how 152 member countries treat women of child-bearing age in both law and practice, and how their legislation compares to ILO standards. It analyzes maternity protection at work, including maternity leave, employment protection and cash and medical benefits for mother and child.

The report says the ILO created the first global standard in 1919 aimed at protecting women before and after childbirth. The revised modern standard calls for a minimum 12 week maternity leave though a 14-week leave is recommended.

Currently, 119 countries meet the ILO minimum standard of 12 weeks with 62 of those countries providing for 14 weeks or more. Just 31 countries mandate a maternity leave of less than 12 weeks.

The countries providing the most paid maternity leave by law include Czech Republic (28 weeks); Hungary (24); Italy and Canada (17); Romania and Spain (16). (Belarus:126 days; Bulgaria 120-180 days; Poland 16-18 weeks); Russia 140 days; Ukraine 126 days).

The report says that protection of mothers in the past half-century has been marked by progress in law, an evolution in workplace practices, and rising social expectations of women, But it says most working women, at some point in their lives, face "unequal treatment in employment due to their reproductive role."