In-depth | Workers' rights

Maternity hardship for working women

By - 08.06.2016

Despite legislation, many women are still unprotected from discriminatory practices.

Maternity leave policies matter. On the one hand, they support a mother’s full recovery from childbirth while helping to facilitate a strong mother-child bond. On the other hand, they ensure safeguards for women’s participation in the economy by creating an environment that promotes and safeguards women’s access to employment and job security.

Policies and practices on maternity leave and parenthood vary from country to country around the world. Sweden and Norway are often held up among countries with the most progressive parental leave policies in the world — more than a year’s paid leave, which can be shared between the mother and father. The United States, Papua New Guinea and Oman are the most criticized countries on their maternity leave policies, with the US being the only developed country with no paid leave guaranteed for working mothers. Against this backdrop, Kosovo looks advanced; at least on paper.

Article 49 of the current Law on Labour stipulates that women are entitled to 12 months of maternity leave. Employers are obliged to pay 70 percent of the salary during the first six months of leave; the government pays for the following three months at a rate of 50 percent of the average Kosovar income; the last three months can be taken unpaid. But discrimination is widely spread in implementation of the law.

A 2011 report by Prishtina-based NGO Kosovar Gender Studies Center (KGSC) shows that although Kosovo ranks among the countries that provide the longest maternity leave entitlement in the region, when considering the overall amount of financial compensation offered, Kosovo is at the bottom of the list. According to the letter of the law, all other countries (with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina) provide higher compensation to mothers during the post-pregnancy period. Kosovo is also different to the other countries in the region in terms of the method of financing maternity leave. In all other countries, the law provides for the payment of maternity leave entitlement entirely from public funds.

Indeed, in Kosovo it appears that it is the first six months of maternity leave (the period in which responsibility for payment falls on the employer) which have been the most problematic to date. This is particularly true within the private sector and the NGO sector. The latter has been a thriving area for employment during the past 16 years of Kosovo’s democratic development, but it has also been subject to short-term financial instability.

According to official statistics around 40 percent of women who are classed as ‘active’ in the labor market in Kosovo are unemployed. However more than 75 percent of women are classed as economically ‘passive,’ meaning that they are not even looking for a job. The participation of women in the labor market in Kosovo is estimated to be the lowest in Europe; in total, only around 13 percent of women in Kosovo are employed. There are a range of factors that contribute to this gloomy economic perspective for women, ranging from lower education than men, fewer opportunities to attend school, discrimination over property inheritance and low ownership levels of real estate.

The unwavering persistence of traditional gender roles for women is particularly true when it comes to raising children. Based on the current law, women have the right to transfer the last six months of their maternity leave to the father of their children. However, according to the Ministry of Social Labor and Welfare (MSLW), to date there has not been a single request for this to happen made by any couple in Kosovo.

Ongoing Discrimination in the Private Sector

Shukrije Rexhepi, legal officer at the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo (BSPK) argues that the distinct lack of opportunities to find a new job in a country with such poor economic prospects for women makes it particularly difficult for them to demand their rights from employers. “They hope they will be taken back to work,” says Rexhepi, pointing out that even when women do speak up against employment injustice, most choose to do so anonymously.

According to Leonora Ahmetaj, head of the division for legislation drafting and harmonization at MLSW, no credible statistics exist on women’s contract terminations. Meanwhile, the private sector has shifted towards offering working women short-term contracts. This is particularly true for women that are perceived to be of marriage or childbearing age.

“From the very beginning, the business wants to meddle in your family planning,” said Luljeta Demolli, head researcher at KGSC. “Are you married?” and “Do you plan to have children soon?” are anecdotally some of the most common questions Kosovar women face during job interviews; a clear breach of the Anti-Discrimination Law.


Meanwhile, working women that use their right to maternity leave are under constant pressure of losing their jobs. Saranda, a young mother in Prishtina is currently on maternity leave. She will return to the workplace before the first six-month period of her leave, as her contract is due to expire and she fears risking renewal if she stays home longer. Another private sector employee, Samire, gave birth four months ago. She has been working at her company for the past three years but has not received any maternity leave payment from her employer to date.

Albulena Haxhiu, a Kosovo Assembly deputy and former member of the Women Deputies Group, told Kosovo 2.0 that government institutions need to sanction businesses that fail to implement the law. “This remains a problem because if we don’t emphasise all of the mechanisms that are available to implement the Law on Labour, private businesses will remain comfortable with not respecting this law,” she said.

NGOs Not Immune

It is not only private businesses which appear to be flouting the Law on Labour. It is also a phenomenon that is common among NGOs. In October 2012, MM — employee of an NGO that gives legal assistance to vulnerable groups and individuals in society — attended her workplace for what was supposed to be an ordinary working day. But that day, seven months into her pregnancy, she went into early labor. Given the nature of the organization she worked for, she was caught off guard when the project coordinator at the NGO said that their donor “could not understand how they can pay somebody, who is not in the office.” (The NGO coordinator confirmed to Kosovo 2.0 that the same statement had been made, although it was denied by the donor when later approached directly by MM).

MM’s last contract with the NGO had only been for a two and a half month period, although she says that the NGO was awaiting new funding and that they had reassured employees, including herself, that once new funds became available, their contracts would be renewed. Three months later, MM received an email saying that her contract would not be renewed, despite the fact that the donor had granted the previously awaited funds.

MM took the rare step, in these circumstances, of raising her voice. She filed a complaint with the Labour Inspectorate of MLSW, which concluded that the NGO had committed a violation by not issuing her maternity leave and ordered it to pay for her maternity leave. The NGO was also found to have not met its legal obligation as an employer to declare MM’s maternity leave to MLSW. In the end, MM was paid for only two months of maternity leave (a fact also confirmed by the NGO’s project coordinator). MM took her case to the Basic Court of Pristina over two years ago, but she is one among thousands of cases still waiting for her case to be heard in a heavily backlogged judicial system.

According to the project coordinator where MM worked, NGOs are a special case and are exempt from the way maternity leave policies apply to women working in the private or public sector. “We didn’t pay more than two months [maternity leave] because the law has to specify that it addresses the public and private sector, and also NGOs,” the coordinator told Kosovo 2.0.

“We didn’t pay more than two months [maternity leave] because the law has to specify that it addresses the public and private sector, and also NGOs.”



The current law certainly has its ambiguities. Basri Ibrahimi, head of Kosovo’s Labour Inspectorate, says that one of the greatest flaws with the current article on maternity is that it doesn’t specify that a woman’s contract must be continued following her leave. He suggests that the legal ramification is that the employer has the right not to renew the contract.

KGSC was one of the most vocal NGOs during the drafting of the existing law, and has been a consistent advocate of ensuring its non-discriminatory application. Head researcher Demolli recognizes that NGO’s are particularly challenged when it comes to maternity leave, not least because of the sector’s peculiar reliance on donor funding; funding tends to be available for activities, with little resource available to fund employee salaries or to create a reserve fund for maternity benefits. However she emphasizes that the law is not selective.

Foreseeing the issues that would arise, during the drafting of the current law, KGSC lobbied for the government to cover up to 80 percent of women’s maternity leave salaries in the NGO sector; the suggestion was met with indifference from the institutions.

New Proposals: Who Stands to Gain?

With the aim of increasing the participation of women in the labor market, in 2013, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) drafted amendments to the Law on Labor. The proposed changes were partly influenced by a 2012 report by the American Chamber in Kosovo, which concluded that the article on maternity law is a burden to Kosovar businesses, and therefore causes discrimination towards women when they apply for new jobs.

This year, the World Bank supported the MLSW in conducting a comprehensive study on the implementation of the Law on Labor to date. Set to be published in a matter of weeks, it is expected to emphasize the negative impact that Article 49 has had on women’s employment. According to MLSW’s Ahmetaj, the results of the study, as well as public hearings, will be taken into account when finalizing amendments to the law. In the meantime, a closer look at the failures of the law and the potential problems that may arise from the new proposal are required.

The proposed changes include amendments to Article 49 on maternity leave, reducing entitlement from 12 to nine months, in an effort to reduce the economic reluctance of employers to hire women. Under the proposals, the first three months (reduced from six months) would be paid by the employer at 70 percent of the normal salary; the following three months would be paid by the government at 60 percent of the Kosovar average salary (an increase of 10 percent); while the last three months could optionally be taken by the employee, unpaid. MLSW maintains that by reducing maternity leave, it would be protecting women in the labor market.


But for many women’s rights NGOs, the new provisions that have been drafted appear to favor businesses over potential mothers. Organizations such as KGSC argue that the government needs to take a greater share of the burden by finding modalities and solutions that take business interests into account, but that ultimately end up safeguarding the needs of women.

“They are talking about changing the article under the perception that this article is damaging women, that women are not going to work, to protect women in the private sector in a very poor way,” said Demolli. “Not by creating policies to increase the employment of women and by protecting them in the private sector, but under the pretext that they are really concerned about unemployed women.”

Childcare Shortfalls

While the proposed amendments might help to fight discrimination against the employment of women in the private sector, women will face a new problem. To date, the majority have not taken up their last unpaid three months of maternity leave entitlement within the 12 month scheme; with the proposed new nine month scheme, childcare will become a serious dilemma for parents.

Even if women were to suddenly start taking up the optional three months entitlement at the end of their leave, there would be a childcare shortfall as public nurseries don’t accept children under the age of one year. Private nurseries do accept babies from the ages of six months, but at 170 euros per month (compared to 50 euros per month for public nurseries in urban areas), a woman on an average Kosovar salary working in the private sector may well find that it makes more economic sense to give up her job in order to stay home with her new child.

Nicole Farnsworth from Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) argues that if there are changes to maternity leave, it will be essential to accompany these with rapid affirmative actions to address this issue. “KWN has long argued that establishing more pre-school and daycare facilities would enable women to return to work earlier and provide new jobs, particularly for women,” Farnsworth told Kosovo 2.0.

Kosovo also falls far behind in regarding the number of daycare facilities that it should have in line with the European Council’s Barcelona Objectives on the development of childcare facilities for young children. “The government should urgently establish more daycare and pre-school facilities, either through public-private partnerships, support to business start-ups towards generating employment, and/or through public programs,” said Farnsworth.

Demolli suggests that the government’s plans to reduce maternity leave will add further concerns to women who want to build a family and might leave women thinking that they need to choose between having a career and being a mother. Demolli (KGSC), Rexhepi (BSPK) and Haxhiu (formerly Women Deputies Group) all said that their respective organizations and groups would strongly oppose the amended Law on Labour, if the proposed changes do not offer appropriate solutions to mothers.

“A woman has to think what to do when her child becomes six months old and about a million other things and also about saving her job,” said Demolli. “Women will still continue to be stressed because private sector employers will still call them to come back to work earlier, even with a shorter maternity leave. All that the government wants to do is give women the minimum rights, in order to avoid violating the conventions provided in the constitution.”

Demolli thinks that Kosovo is missing the point by discussing changes to maternity leave policy. She argues that before a discussion on the law is held, we first need to understand that women are currently unemployed because the government isn’t doing anything to employ them.K

Editor’s note: The names of MM, her employer and the other interviewed women have been kept anonymous at their own request, in order to avoid further hardship and discriminatory practices.