February 23, 2011

III. Global Trends and Country Comparisons

The United States is an extreme outlier in the area of work-family policy. Throughout the tumult of the global economy in recent decades—including the economic downturn of recent years—countries have adopted and expanded policies to enable workers to meet their work and family obligations in recognition of the utterly changed composition of the workforce.

A striking example of this trend, explored in this chapter, is in the area of paid leave for new parents and for family caregivers.[93] Since 2008, in most countries that have seen changes to maternity, paternity, or parental leave, the change did not reduce benefits, but rather made them more generous or entailed structural changes without lowering benefits.[94] Workers and employers in most countries have come to accept paid leave as a standard and necessary social support for working families.

Appendix I contains a chart with examples of paid maternity, paternity, parental, and additional family leave benefits in other countries.     

Paid Leave Trends and History

For more than a century, the most widespread form of paid family leave—paid maternity leave—has proliferated to the point of being almost universal in developed and developing countries. In 1883, Germany enacted the first paid maternity leave law. Others soon followed: by the First World War, 13 other countries offered it as well.[95] By the 1940s, nearly all European countries had established a range of social welfare policies, including maternity benefits.[96] Paid paternity and parental leave laws followed, starting with Sweden in 1974. By the mid-1990s, most European countries had adopted paid paternity and parental leave policies.[97] Since then, countries have moved toward longer leaves and incentives for fathers to take leaves.[98]  

In 2010, a major global survey on paid leave and other workplace benefits was published by Dr. Jody Heymann of McGill University and Dr. Alison Earle of Northeastern University, leading experts on labor conditions and social policies around the world. Out of 190 countries included in the survey, 177 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers, and four did not guarantee any pay during maternity leave (Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, the United States, and Australia). Nine lacked sufficient information.[99] Australia instituted paid parental leave in January 2011, bringing the global tally to 178 countries with laws on paid leave for new mothers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) also published a report in 2010 on national laws on maternity protection in 167 countries, and found that 97 percent offered paid maternity leave.[100] While enforcement of these laws is not perfect, and workers in the informal sector may not always be covered, these laws generally benefit an enormous proportion of women workers worldwide.

Paternity leave for fathers is also gaining ground. At least 49 countries provide some form of leave that fathers can use around the birth of a child, according to the ILO.[101] The number was higher when counting paid parental leave available to either parent. The Heymann and Earle study, which covered more countries, found that 54 guarantee paid paternity leave. That study also determined that 67 percent of the most competitive countries offer paid leave for new fathers, compared to 33 percent of the least competitive countries.[102] 

The Heymann and Earle study found that 33 countries provide workers with paid leave to care for sick family members, mostly in Europe and Central Asia.[103] 

Length of Leave and Transferability

The length of paid leave ranges from a few days (for fathers) in some countries to years in others. Maternity leave tends to be longest. Of the 167 countries covered by the ILO’s maternity leave survey, 51 percent provide at least 14 weeks, 20 percent provide 18 or more weeks, and 35 percent provide 12 or 13 weeks of maternity leave. Only 14 percent provide less than 12 weeks of maternity leave, down from 19 percent in 1994.[104]

In most countries, maternity leave duration has increased or stayed steady over the past 15 years.[105] OECD countries provide on average 18 weeks of maternity leave, of which an average of 13 are paid at 100 percent of last earnings (excluding additional paid parental leave).[106] The Heymann and Earle study found that 101 countries offered 14 weeks or more paid leave for new mothers, and 29 guaranteed one year or more.[107] They found the average duration of paid leave for new mothers in the most competitive countries was 43 weeks, compared to 25 weeks in the least competitive nations.[108] 

Paternity leave benefits tend to be shorter. Nonetheless, the combined paternity and parental leaves in many countries are substantial. For example, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, and Sweden guarantee a year or more of paid leave for fathers (paternity and parental leave combined).[109] Thirty-one countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave to new fathers.[110] 

Some countries have non-transferrable portions of leave to encourage fathers to take time off work (and thus promote equality in care giving), sometimes referred to as “daddy days” or “use-it-or-lose-it” leave. Iceland, for example, offers nine months of parental leave divided into thirds: one-third for the mother, one-third for the father, and one-third to be split as the parents wish.[111] Countries that offer leave benefits for fathers for long enough and with high enough wage replacement have quickly seen take-up increase, especially when the benefits are non-transferable. For example, close to 90 percent of fathers are reported to take paid paternity leave in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Norway, and at least two-thirds do so in Finland, France, and Germany.[112]

Policymakers have voiced concern that long maternity or parental leaves may lower women’s wages. However, this is a minimal risk when the leave policy fits within certain parameters. Recent research on 22 countries found substantial wage penalties related to motherhood in countries that offer more than 18 months of leave for new parents, and even more extreme motherhood wage penalties in countries that guarantee no paid leave for new parents. It also found that the motherhood wage penalty is lower in countries that offer about one year of job-protected leave.[113] Other research has shown that paid leaves of between three and six months have no or negligible impact on women’s wages, whereas one study found some wage depression for leaves of nine months or more.[114] On the other hand, there is also evidence that where longer leaves are job-protected, gains in women’s seniority and developing job-specific human capital may compensate for reduced wages.[115]  

Benefit Levels

The amount of wage replacement during paid leave varies widely. The amounts paid are sometimes a flat rate (e.g., the minimum wage), sometimes a capped percentage of prior earnings, or full pay. The 2010 ILO report found that 42 percent of the 167 countries reviewed provide at least 14 weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of earnings or more, and 34 percent pay 100 percent for at least 14 weeks.[116] Heymann and Earle found that 41 countries offer 100 percent of usual wages for at least some portion of paternity leave.[117]   

Financing and Economic Impacts

Financing for paid leave can be done in many ways, but the trend in most developed countries is away from requiring employers to directly pay wages during leave, and toward establishing social insurance funds (often financed with payroll tax contributions or through general tax revenues) that employees can access during leave. This public financing approach helps mitigate discrimination by private employers in the labor market by reducing the disincentive to hire workers they consider likely to have children and take leave. Of the countries included in the 2010 ILO study, 53 percent financed maternity benefits through social security, 20 percent relied on joint contributions from employers and social security, and 26 percent required employers to cover the full amount (down from 31 percent in 1994).[118]  

The costs of maternity, paternity, and parental leave relative to population and gross domestic product are modest, even in countries with generous leave policies.

Public expenditures on maternity leave are estimated to amount to an average of 0.3 percent of GDP for leave payments in countries in the European Union and the OECD.[119]

In terms of broad economic impacts of paid family leave, the Heymann and Earle study found that there is no relationship between unemployment rates and family-friendly policies like paid leave.[120] It found that countries guaranteeing leave to care for personal or family health had the highest levels of economic competitiveness.[121] 


[93] Comparative information on other types of work-supports (such as paid sick days, flexible scheduling, and breastfeeding accommodations) is available from other sources, including publications and databases of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and from studies by academic experts and work-family advocates. See, e.g., Jody Heymann and Alison Earle, Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); Gornick and Meyers, Families that Work; Arianne Hegewisch and Janet Gornick, “Statutory Routes to Workplace Flexibility in Cross-National Perspective,” IWPR, 2008; and Gornick and Hegewisch, “The Impact of ‘Family-Friendly Policies’ on Women’s Employment Outcomes and on the Costs and Benefits of Doing Business.”

[94]Anne H. Gauthier, “The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Family Policies in the European Union,” European Commission, February 15, 2010, http://www.thefamilywatch.org/doc/doc-0092-es.pdf (accessed October 29, 2010), pp. 12-13.

[95] Shiela Kamerman and Peter Moss (eds.), The Politics of Parental Leave Policies: Children, Parenting, Gender and the Labour Market (Bristol: The Policy Press, 2009), p. 1.

[96] Gornick and Meyers, Families that Work, p. 37. The other core welfare policies included health and sickness benefits; family allowances; workers compensation; pensions for old age, disability, and survivors; and unemployment compensation.

[97] Kamerman and Moss, The Politics of Parental Leave Policies, p. 2

[98] Ibid., p. 262.

[99] Heymann and Earle, Raising the Global Floor, p. 111. The nine countries where insufficient information was available were Bhutan, Liberia, Tuvalu, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Suriname. Email communication with Professor Alison Earle, February 20, 2010.

[100] ILO, Maternity at Work: A Review of National Legislation (Geneva: International Labour Office, 2010), p. 17. By the ILO’s count, the five countries not offering paid maternity leave were Australia, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. This differs from the Heymann and Earle study by including Lesotho. This appears to be out of date, as Heymann and Earle received notification that Lesotho offers two weeks of paid maternity leave. Email communication from Jody Heymann to Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2010.

[101] ILO, Maternity at Work, p. x.

[102] Heymann and Earle, Raising the Global Floor, p. 63. The study assessed the competitiveness rankings assigned by the World Economic Forum (WEF) between 1999 and 2008. The WEF publishes rankings of country competitiveness in its annual Global Competitiveness Report. The rankings are based on a comprehensive index that captures microeconomic and macroeconomic foundations of national competitiveness, and the WEF defines competitiveness as the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country.

[103] Ibid., p. 135.

[104] ILO, Maternity at Work, pp. 6 and 10.

[105] Ibid., p. 10.

[106]OECD, “Gender Brief,” March 2010, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/23/31/44720649.pdf (accessed October 18, 2010).

[107] Heymann and Earle, Raising the Global Floor, p. 111.

[108] Ibid., p. 63.

[109] Ibid., p. 84 and Moss, ed., “International Review of Leave Policies and Related Research 2010.” Employment Relations Research Series 115, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2010, http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/ employment-matters/docs/i/10-1157-international-review-leave-policies.pdf (accessed January 25, 2011).

[110] Ibid., p. 143.

[111] ILO, Maternity at Work, p. 44.

[112] Moss, ed., “International Review of Leave Policies and Related Research 2010,” pp. 30-31 and country chapters.

[113]Michelle J. Budig, Joya Misra, and Irene Boeckmann, “The Cross-National Effects of Work-Family Policies on the Motherhood Wage Penalty: Findings from Multilevel Analyses,” unpublished manuscript, on file with Human Rights Watch, p. 27. Budig and Misra are sociology professors and Boeckmann is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

[114] See Gornick and Hegewisch, “The Impact of ‘Family-Friendly Policies’ on Women’s Employment Outcomes and on the Costs and Benefits of Doing Business,” p. 11.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Ibid., p. ix and 20. For this calculation, the ILO was using a sub-set of 152 of the total countries studied, excluding 15 others due to ambiguity about their leave policy or because they were not in full compliance with the standards of the ILO maternity protection convention.

[117] Heymann and Earle, Raising the Global Floor, p. 143.

[118] ILO, Maternity at Work, pp. ix and 34.

[119]Henning Lohmann, et al., “Towards a Framework for assessing family policies in the EU Final Report,” DIW Berlin and SFI Copenhagen, April 2009, http://thefamilywatch.org/doc/doc-0077-es.pdf (accessed October 29, 2010), p. 58.

[120] Heymann and Earle, Raising the Global Floor, p. 111.

[121] Ibid., pp. 14-15 and 27-29.