07 August 2018

Breastfeeding in the workplace: SA's policies lagging

It’s International Breastfeeding Week, but SA is far behind in workplace breastfeeding policy.

When Amanda (surname withheld) had her baby, she was a senior member of the marketing team at a company operating in the retail hospitality sector. When she returned to work after four months (three of those maternity leave months were paid at half her salary and one was unpaid), she wanted to continue breastfeeding her baby to at least the World Health Organization’s recommended six months.

A fundamental right

Amanda asked for a place to pump her milk and a fridge to store it so she could give it to her baby when she got home. The company cleared out an old store-room, which remained unhygienic and ran an extension cord from outside the room so she could plug in her pump. After a battle to get fridge space, Amanda and another woman (who was also pumping milk) bought a fridge with their own money. This is but one example of a woman wholly unsupported in the workplace in her fundamental right to provide breastmilk for her baby. 

Some would say that there’s formula and cheap child care in South Africa, and in tight economic times, breastfeeding support is not a main priority. Sarah* who works as a marketing executive for a property company had this to add, “Forget needing a bit of flexibility after becoming a mother as it’s too inconvenient for day-to-day operations within the company. Most requests for flexibility are declined as it would be setting a precedent. I have long felt we need reform for mothers, short- and long-term.”

Senior policy analyst Patricia Martin-Wiesner, who wrote a review on SA’s progress in fulfilling its international and national responsibilities to support breastfeeding, asserts that breastfeeding support is a sound financial investment. “The cost of inaction is high and the returns on helping women (to) continue breastfeeding are high for companies and the country as a whole.” Martin-Wiesner says the conversation should involve breastfeeding for economic development and not only health. She suggests that breastfeeding support in companies should be incentivised and rewarded.

Limited support

“The science shows that breastfeeding results in healthier babies, improved cognitive development of children, better educational and social outcomes, and ultimately better productivity for working moms.” She adds that it’s also a matter of a company’s staff retention and risk management strategies. Mothers, she says, will not be away from their desks worrying about sick children with ear infections and allergies – which are commonly associated with formula and bottle feeding.

There are certainly some corporates and non-profits in South Africa who provide support to breastfeeding women: Nicky* who works in Pretoria at an NGO said she received four months paid maternity leave with the flexibility for an extension (in South Africa, the law states that maternity leave is 14 weeks unpaid), mental health resources and a pumping room with hospital grade breast pumps.

Should she have struggled with breastfeeding, the organisation would have paid for a lactation consultant.

Leigh (surname withheld) works at a top medical insurance company where there is a crèche on site and breastfeeding rooms on every floor of the new building. Tanya*, who works for a financial services company got six months paid leave and will have quiet and clean facilities to pump when she returns.

It’s clear however that consistency across the board doesn’t exist. Martin-Wiesner confirms this, “We did a survey of workplaces for the study – the sample was small – but it was clear that the best practices to support breastfeeding are the exception rather than the rule.” She noted that even in some human rights organisations, there were no formal policies to support breastfeeding.

Critical role of workplace policy

The evidence-based best practice guidelines include statutory paid maternity leave for six months; promoting part or flexi-time work for returning mothers; and legislative universal guarantee of breastfeeding breaks up to six months supplemented with appropriately supportive workplace environments. A supportive workplace environment includes day care vouchers or assistance with day care and family-friendly arrangements such as job sharing and comprehensive paternity leave.

August 1–8 marks International Breastfeeding Week, partly as a measure to create awareness about the role of breastfeeding in sustainable development. The breastfeeding review document written by Martin-Wiesner and supported by the DST-NRF Centre for Excellence in Human Development, based at Wits School of Public Health, reveals the critical role workplace policy plays in breastfeeding. “Where the share of the female workforce averages at around 40% (in South Africa), a national policy guaranteeing breastfeeding support was associated with an eight percentage point increase in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in infants younger than six months.” 

These statistics, though, are not well known. Martin-Wiesner acknowledges that companies simply don’t have the knowledge about the critical need for babies to be breastfed and the kinds of effective policies that could be implemented. “Many businesses are not doing much because they don’t know they have to, or don’t know what they are required to do.” Moreover, she adds that the Department of Labour is not always monitoring breastfeeding support policy implementation.

An article in The Lancet health journal (January 2016) suggests that changing policies begins with disseminating the evidence and guidelines of how to reinforce breastfeeding culture. The article adds, “…improvements in breastfeeding would help achieve the targets for health, food security, education, equity, development and the environment.” Companies can therefore help to ensure that the major costs that will be borne by future generations can be mitigated through breastfeeding support for working mothers in South Africa.

* Names changed

Image credit: iStock


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