Huge variations in maternity benefits


The United Kingdom is one of the worst places in Europe to have a baby, according to a new global survey.

Research by Mercer Human Resource Consulting based on comparing statutory pay built up over six months of maternity leave says the UK, along with Greece and Luxembourg, are the countries with the lowest level of statutory maternity pay in the European Union.

A British mother earning £15,000 would receive £2,458 statutory pay in the six months after leaving work – less than in all EU countries except Luxembourg and Greece. The most generous allowances in the EU are given in Denmark, Italy and Sweden, where entitlement would be £6,756, £6,058 and £6,000 respectively.

Gary Bowker, Employment Law Consultant at Mercer, said “With the Government’s emphasis on family-friendly policies, it’s surprising that UK statutory benefits are so much lower than in the rest of the EU. However, a growing number of companies are now providing benefits above the legal minimum as a recruitment and retention tool.”

From 6 April 2003, mothers will get new maternity rights in the UK, but the changes will still keep the UK in the "bottom rung" of provision in the EU, Bowker said.

In April 2003, the UK maternity benefit allowance will increase, meaning an additional £1,000 extra for someone earning £15,000 over the course of six months' leave. Statutory maternity pay will also be extended from 18 weeks to 26 weeks.

Nevertheless, women in the UK are better off than many others in the English-speaking world. The USA provides no statutory maternity pay at all, although women may receive short-term disability or sick leave benefits. Similarly, women in Australia do not receive any statutory maternity benefits although they are given a government allowance of £285.

In comparison, even Russia provides the equivalent of £1,280 while Hungary and Poland both exceed the EU average (£4,846 and £4,615 respectively). Famously child-friendly Brazil is also generous with its maternity pay, where a mother earning the equivalent of £15,000 would receive £6,923.

Asian countries such as Singapore and Taiwan also have low levels of maternity pay - the equivalent of £2,308 in both countries.

Globally, the highest level of benefits was offered by Norway, where a woman earning £15,000 annually would receive £7,500 during six months' leave.

Maternity Leave
There are also vast differences in the total number of weeks’ statutory maternity leave both within Europe and globally.

Time off for mothers in the UK is the fifth most generous in the EU. Sweden offers by far the most leave, at 96 weeks. Denmark, Italy, Finland and the UK also have generous provision, where women are entitled to up to 50, 47, 44 and 40 weeks’ leave respectively. In contrast, German women are only entitled to 14 weeks’ leave – a fraction of the Swedish allowance. Similarly, provision in Belgium is low, at 15 weeks.

“There is not always a correlation between the length of maternity leave and the benefit levels provided,” said Mr Bowker. “Some countries offer long leave entitlements but low statutory pay, and women may not be able to afford to take extended leave.”

But the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argues that the trend towards longer leave for mothers and fathers in Britain will undermine competitiveness and lead to unemployment.

Nevertheless, a survey by the CBI published earlier this year showed that 27 per cent of employers paid more than statutory maternity pay and 26 per cent allowed new mothers more than the minimum leave. The more generous sectors were financial services and utility companies.

Worldwide, Asian countries provide the least number of weeks’ statutory maternity leave. Women in Singapore and Taiwan are entitled to just 8 weeks, and in Hong Kong, 10 weeks’ leave. Maternity leave allowance in the US is also low, at just 12 weeks. In contrast, women in Australia and New Zealand are entitled to take up to 52 weeks’ leave, while in Canada maternity leave is 50 weeks.

The case study example of a woman earning £15,000 is used to make comparisons across Europe and globally. Average national earnings in each of the countries will, of course, vary. The figures used assume that the woman is expecting her first child and has completed one year of service.