News reports for the past three days have been abound with reports on the 8 storey building collapse at Savar, the terrible loss of innocent lives and the ongoing rescue operation to rescue the survivors of this horrible tragedy. A news report which magnetically captured my attention was the following,
"Two infants, born under the debris of the eight-storey commercial building which collapsed here, were miraculously rescued along with their mothers, a Bangladeshi fire official said on Friday. According to the official, pregnant women were among the several garment factory workers trapped under the concrete ruins of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka's suburb. "Two infants have been reported to be born under the debris. They along with their mothers were among the 2,348 people rescued," he said. Garment factories in Bangladesh hire predominantly female workers, and many pregnant workers are reported to be among those still trapped under the debris."
The subject of interest here is the fact that pregnant women, at the last stages of pregnancy, who were also garments workers, were in to work on that fateful day. To live for another day. To support their families and feed the hungry mouths. To save their jobs from being terminated due to the liability of any maternity leave.
I draw attention to this fact because it has hit my conscience. And my conscience just will not lie down or be subdued. Do pregnant women not have the right to a maternity leave? Does the state not have any responsibility towards such women? Or will working pregnant women remain at the mercy of their generally heartless employers?
So, what does the International Labor Organization (ILO) say about the issue of maternity leave at work, of which Bangladesh is a signatory?
In 1975, ILO member States adopted a Declaration on Equality of Opportunity and Treatment for Women Workers, which linked the prohibition of discrimination against women on the grounds of pregnancy and childbirth with the right to employment protection during pregnancy and maternity leave as well as the specific protections provided in Convention No. 103.
According to a 2012 report entitled “Maternity at work: A review of national legislation”, which details the findings of the ILO on conditions of work and employment laws in various countries, the legislation in Bangladesh (as per law in 2009) allows for a satisfactory 16 weeks of maternity leave. This is against the ILO standard requirement of a minimum of 14 weeks leave.
As is clearly evident, the laws are in place. But it is apparent that its implementation is not. Bangladesh is certainly not alone in this respect. As the ILO report says, “Once hired, women face potential job loss should they become pregnant and their pregnancy become known. Termination of employment on the grounds of pregnancy is said to occur even in countries which outlaw the practice. In the United Kingdom, more than one in eight of the inquiries received by the Equal Opportunities Commission relate to dismissal due to pregnancy. In Spain, the General Union of Workers (UGT) observed that employers dismissed women or did not renew their contracts on account of pregnancy and, in certain situations, employers offered temporary workers employment for an indefinite period if they relinquished their maternity rights. This was said to occur despite the availability of procedures of redress for victims of such discrimination.”
So what do we do? Do we play the blame game by pointing at the UK and Spain? Or do we take the lead? I believe that there is no alternative to the latter since we have the desired legislation for granting maternity leave in place. Every woman has the right to a safe motherhood and every child has the right to a safe birth. Let not the issue of maternity leave be a cause for more deaths of mothers or their children, or both. I urge the proper authorities to ensure that no more sisters have to suffer like the ones at Savar who had to give birth in such unsafe conditions.
And Allah knows best.