Are you pregnant? These are your rights in the workplace

Did you know that if you’re pregnant in South Africa, you have certain rights in the workplace?

We look a little closer at the rights of women in the workplace during pregnancy and after.

When to disclose your pregnancy

When it comes to South African law – the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) – there is no specified time by which you must inform your employer of your pregnancy status. However, you must notify them in writing of the dates you intend taking maternity leave and when you intend returning to work.

Maternity leave and benefits

If you’re pregnant, you’re entitled to four months’ unpaid maternity leave, which can be taken from as early as four weeks before your due date (on a date specified by your health practitioner for your health or that of your baby) and then the balance immediately after the birth. You may not return to work for six weeks after giving birth unless you’ve been cleared by a doctor.

Props to your employer if they choose to pay your salary or a portion thereof during your maternity leave, but this is at their discretion and is not legislated. If they don’t, it can be a tough financial time but your monthly contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) will come in handy here. You can claim maternity benefits from the fund, and you’ll receive a portion of your salary from them. This can range from 38% to 58% of your salary – with the idea being that the less you earn, the bigger your payout will be.

Parental leave came into effect on 1 January this year, which affords working fathers and some other caregivers 10 days’ leave for which they can claim UIF if necessary and receive up to 66% of their salary, capped at R205 433.30. This leave is intended for fathers or caregivers to help new mothers (or new primary caregivers in the case of same-sex couples), and while it isn’t a lot by international standards, it is a step in the right direction.

Keeping you safe at work

There is a Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees and after the Birth of a Child.

The code gives guidelines for employers and employees about a woman’s health in their work environment during pregnancy, after the birth of a child and while breastfeeding (some moms might return to work while still breastfeeding).

Protecting your health and safety

Workplaces might be affected differently, depending on the type of business and sector you’re engaged in and the hazards you’re exposed to. The norms in this code are general and don’t apply to all workplaces.

When you notify an employer that you’re pregnant, your situation in the workplace should be evaluated. The evaluation should include:

  • An examination of your physical condition by a qualified medical professional;
  • Your job;
  • Workplace practices and potential workplace exposures that may affect you.

If the evaluation reveals that there is a risk to your or your baby’s health, your employer must:

  • Inform the employee of the risk.
  • Determine what steps should be taken to prevent the risk of exposure, such as adjusting the work conditions.
  • Give the employee appropriate training in the hazards and the preventive measures needed.
  • Consult an occupational health practitioner if there is any uncertainty or concern about whether your working conditions should be adjusted.

If appropriate adjustments cannot be made, you should be transferred to another position.

Arrangements should be made for pregnant and breastfeeding employees to attend antenatal and postnatal appointments during pregnancy and after birth.

“The code gives guidelines for employers and employees about a woman’s health in their work environment during pregnancy, after the birth of a child and while breastfeeding”

What aspects of pregnancy may affect your ability to work?

Both you and your employer should be aware of the following common aspects of pregnancy that may affect your work performance:

  1. Morning sickness: This is particularly relevant if you’re a shift worker and catch the early shift. Exposure to certain smells could aggravate morning sickness.
  2. Backache and varicose veins may result from work involving prolonged standing or sitting. Backache may also result from work involving manual handling.
  3. Do you have easy access to the bathroom and toilet facilities, and does your employer take this into consideration?
  4. If you wear a uniform, this might need to change as your belly grows.
  5. How is your size affecting certain skills such as dexterity, agility, co-ordination, speed of movement and reach?
  6. Are there any slippery or wet surfaces you need to be particularly aware of as your centre of gravity shifts during pregnancy?
  7. Fatigue may also affect your ability to perform optimally and even work overtime.

Some of the more hazardous risks you might face in the workplace, and how to prevent them:

  • Cytomegalovirus: Maintain high standards of personal hygiene, wash your hands after contact and use gloves when handling potentially contaminated wastes to minimise the risk of infection.
  • Hepatitis: General precautions must be taken for all forms of hepatitis. Vaccination is the most effective means available to prevent hepatitis B.
  • HIV: Avoid mucous membranes and skin coming into contact with potentially contaminated blood or other secretions. HIV Universal precautions are important for workers potentially exposed to HIV. Healthcare workers should take precautions to prevent needless stick injuries, and be careful when handling the blood, tissues or mucosal areas of all patients.
  • Rubella (German measles): Rubella vaccine is the most effective means of preventing the disease, and susceptible employees should be immunised. Pregnancy should be avoided for three months after vaccination.
  • Varicella (chickenpox): If you’ve been exposed to chickenpox while pregnant and haven’t been vaccinated, it is advisable to consult a doctor
  • Toxoplasmosis gondii: Maintain high standards of personal and environmental hygiene, and avoid cat litter and faeces.

How does the Code of Good Practice help you after you have had your baby?

If you’re breastfeeding or expressing milk, you’re entitled to two breaks of 30 minutes each in your workday for the first six months of your child’s life.

If there is an occupational health service at a workplace, appropriate records should be kept of pregnancies and the outcome of pregnancies, including any complications in the condition of the employee or child.

What to do if your rights aren’t being met?

Speak to your HR department, and if your company doesn’t have one, contact the Department of Labour.