Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Workplace maternity protection rights are covered in the International Labour Organisation’s Conventions as well as in a number of international treaties. In spite of this, the economic security and health of many women working in the informal and formal sectors remains at risk because they are not entitled to maternity leave before and after the birth of their infant. As a result, they are often fired or suffer discrimination just because they are pregnant or likely to become pregnant. They are also exposed to working conditions that constitute a risk to procreation and the health of the foetus.
On the other hand, many women are unable to breastfeed because of their need to be at work. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that insufficient childcare facilities limits the possibilities for women to have a paid job and a career.

What is maternity protection and breastfeeding at work?

These are a series of measures which when put in place preserve the health of mothers and their newborn babies. They are also intended to provide some economic security to the women concerned and their families.

The five key elements of maternity protection at work are:

  • Maternity leave: the right of women to be given time off from work during pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period.
  • Cash and medical benefits: the right of mothers to continue to receive their pay during maternity leave and to have access to medical care during pregnancy, childbirth and the post-natal period.
  • Health protection at the workplace: for the mother and her unborn child during pregnancy as well as during the breastfeeding period.
  • Employment protection and non-discrimination: women workers must enjoy employment protection and have the right to go back to their jobs or an equivalent job with the same salary once their maternity leave is over. Moreover, women may not be discriminated at the workplace or when looking for work because of their reproductive function.
  • Measures to facilitate breastfeeding: these are designed to allow women to breastfeed or to pump and store their breast milk at the workplace once they return to work.

Maternity protection at work encompasses all women workers in the formal and informal sectors.

Occupational risk factors

Occupational hazards can be biological, chemical or physical. They may be due to physical or mental factors, poor working conditions or an unhealthy work environment.
That is why it is necessary to put in place policies and procedures that guarantee the identification and elimination of risks during pregnancy.

Workplace hazards include:


  • Shocks, vibration or movements.
  • Noise.
  • Ionising radiation.
  • Extreme cold and heat.
  • Work in a hyperbaric pressure environment.


  • Unsocial working hours (shift/night work, extended working hours).
  • Working alone
  • Exposure to stress and high pressure working environment.


  • Standing activities.
  • Sitting activities.
  • Forced posture related to the professional activities of pregnant workers or women who have recently given birth.
  • Manual handling of heavy loads.
  • Movements and posture.
  • Travelling either inside or outside the establishment.

Chemical and biological

  • Biological agents.
  • Carcinogenic or mutagenic substances.
  • Reprotoxic substances.
  • Endocrine disruptors.
  • Mercury and derivatives: mercury, lead, antimony, cadmium, arsenic.
  • Antimycotic drugs (cytotoxic agents).
  • Chemical agents which are known to be absorbed by the skin.
  • Pesticides.
  • Solvents.
  • Rubber.
  • Anaesthetic gases.
  • Pharmaceutical products.
  • Carbon monoxide.

Trade unions and the protection of pregnant and breastfeeding workers

Trade unions play a fundamental role in promoting and improving the protection of expectant women at the workplace, but their responsibility does not end there. They also participate in debates on maternity protection legislation, facilitate communication between workers, employers and governments, raise awareness about maternity protection issues, and seek to have them included in collective agreements and global agreements on workplace practices.

As a representative of women workers

Employers will have to inform you if there are risks which could affect the health of expectant or breastfeeding women. Your task will be to make sure that the company identifies and eliminates those risks. The trade unions are entitled to request and obtain information about the protection measures that have been taken in order to guarantee safe working conditions. You, as representative, will then inform the women workers about the existence of possible risks and the measures they should take should the company fail to comply with the requirements.

As a worker you must also keep your trade union informed and seek all the information you can get about the risks and the measures that need to be taken in order to protect expectant and breastfeeding women workers and to defend your rights. You can count on the support of your trade union.