Rights to protect maternity and work-life balance

The concept of formal equality between women and men is now universally recognized, at least in principle. When reality continues to systematically  breach legal equality, the main challenge for improving the situation of women often remains in the implementation of public policies allowing real and effective rebalancing of roles in the family, access to the labour market and flexible work arrangements to support workers with family responsibilities. Since the 1980s, these two issues (maternity protection and work-life balance) have been at the heart of new social policies, endorsed by many OECD members as well as some developing countries, in order to offer women and families the opportunity to live in better conditions. In this regard, the ILO has devoted these new rights to two relatively recent conventions: the Workers with family responsibilities convention (No. 156, 1981) and the Maternity protection convention (No. 183 , 2000).

In the context of trade agreements, that recall the need to ensure equality between men and women, but also the need to ensure that such equality is possible through public action. Programs to reconcile maternity, family life and access to the labour market could be promoted.


Ways to enforce rights allowing maternity protection and reconciling work and family life

  • Including a clause in the chapter on labour in trade agreements would emphasize the importance of accessing the labour market, in order to ensure real equality between women and men. It may also indicate that implementing public policies is necessary to ensure integration into the labour market. Lastly, it could also mention that maternity requires special protection and should never be a ground for discrimination in the labour market.
  • Implementing cooperation activities to inform all contracting parties of the policies adopted regarding this matter. Each country has its own specific mechanisms to balance family life and the labour market. Its inclusion in trade agreements could provide an opportunity to exchange information on the different partners practices and consequently improve work-life balance in Canada.
  • Making a mutual commitment to ratify the Conventions relating to maternity protection and workers with family responsibilities. Canada has not yet ratified these conventions. The inclusion of such commitment in trade agreements represents an opportunity to ratify them, in addition to encouraging trading partners to adopt them as well.

Arguments in favour

  • Such provisions would promote the adoption of family support policies, offering the possibility of true equalization of living and working conditions between women and men.
  • Given the diversity of practices between different countries, enhanced cooperation on work-life balance issues would help harmonize practices and improve the situation in different countries.

Arguments against

  • These social clauses would be ineffective. Family public policies lead to an increase in tax burden and inefficient bureaucratic structures, without solving the problem of access to the labour market for women.
  • As policies and practices are not harmonized across Canadian provinces, Canada cannot claim to have a strong and coherent position in international negotiations.

What they said:

«Ultimately, coordination of actions between different levels of intervention, local (companies, local authorities, etc.), national and supranational, is a prerequisite for the establishment of a platform for conciliation between work and family for men and women.»

Marie-Agnès Barrère-Maurisson et Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay. «Reconciling work and family: the role of France-Quebec actors», Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2009


«[P]ublic provision of important social services that favour women might be undermined if loss of government revenue through reductions in tariffs leads to cuts in such services.»

Kate Higgins, «Gender and Free Trade Agreements:  Best Practices and Policy Guidance». The North-South Institute, October 2012