20 October 2014 | Report

Maternity Protection in SMEs: An international review


The Maternity Protection in SMEs: An International Review from the International Labour Organization provides a detailed analysis of the key international literature on the outcomes of maternity protection in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It also addresses the questions of how, to what extent and under what conditions maternity protection in SMEs can generate positive outcomes for enterprises as well as broader society, considering implications for policy and practice.

The review explains that maternity protection is an important dimension of work quality and gender equality, and that it is also necessary for sustaining social reproduction and economic production. The aims of maternity protection are to protect the health of mothers and their babies and minimise, and ultimately eradicate, the difficulties and disadvantages that working women face because of giving birth. The success of national and workplace strategies to promote gender equality at work are dependent on adequate and accessible maternity protection as well as family-friendly working conditions, benefits and services.

Nevertheless, maternity protection can be perceived as a challenge by individual firms, especially small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Although rarely quantified, the cost of maternity protection in SMEs is widely perceived to be greater than the benefits and to lead to competitive disadvantage. The short and medium term benefits for firms are often expressed in terms of the retention of valued (women) workers and productivity. However, the longer term economic and social benefits of offering effective and accessible maternity protection to all women employees are often more difficult to demonstrate, or for SME employers to perceive, due to immediate resource issues, other economic challenges or cultural values and expectations.

This review covers four issues:

  1. the perceived cost and benefits of maternity provisions for SMEs;
  2. links between maternity protection measures in SMEs, as part of family-oriented practices, and enterprise-level outcomes;
  3. breastfeeding and child-care support at work; and
  4. evidence of the wider benefits to society in having effective maternity protection, which can also have indirect benefits for SMEs.



  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical framework
  • Method
  • Outcomes of maternity protection in SMEs: Productive, sustainable and responsible workplaces
  • Achieving positive business and social outcomes: Processes
  • Effective maternity protection and positive outcomes for SMEs: Conditions in which positive relationships are more likely to materialise
  • Incentives, disincentives and obstacles to providing effective and accessible maternity protection in SMEs in diverse global contexts
  • Recommendations: Policy, interventions and further research
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography


  • Women, along with workers from ethnic minorities, migrant workers and both older and younger workers, are disproportionally found in SMEs. Maternity protection and family responsibilities are, therefore, a key concern for both women workers and their employers. Maternity protection is often perceived as a burden by small business owners.
  • In some countries, the law provides that employers should shoulder maternity leave cash benefits, while, in others, regulations exempt employers in SMEs from applying maternity protection provisions. The perception that maternity and family responsibilities are costly for business is also reinforced by the cultural assumption that “ideal workers” are available for work all the time, and that women’s commitment to work declines when they are pregnant or become mothers.
  • The aim of maternity protection is to protect the health of mothers and their babies, and to minimise (and ultimately eradicate) the difficulties and disadvantages that working women face as a result of giving birth.
  • According to the ILO, maternity protection includes:
    • maternity leave around childbirth; health protection at work for pregnant and breastfeeding women;
    • cash and medical benefits;
    • employment protection and non-discrimination;
    • and breastfeeding support after returning to work.
  • The review finds that there is some evidence of certain links between aspects of effective and accessible maternity protection and positive enterprise-level outcomes. These include retention of valued staff and reduced recruitment costs, mitigated absenteeism, enhanced organisational commitment and staff motivation, improved relations among employees, and various indices of performance and productivity.
  • The review reveals that research concerning maternity protection in SMEs is very limited, and research that focuses on the link between maternity protection practices and enterprise-level outcomes is even more so. Moreover, most of the literature is derived from developed countries. The outcomes of maternity provision in SMEs is a subject yet to reach research agendas in the developing world, where large numbers of women work in the informal economy, and where there are problems enforcing maternity.

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