By Gwynneth Jacobs, La Leche League Leader, Cape Town, South Africa
After the birth of my son I witnessed the wonders of breastfeeding and was amazed by how breast milk is so much more than just food. It is such a special bond and the central piece to my whole mothering journey! As a working mother, the time eventually came when I had to return to work, and this presented a challenge. I knew I wanted to continue providing my son with the many health and immune system benefits of breast milk when apart from me, and the tender breastfeeding connection when with me. Prior to giving birth I hadn’t considered how breastfeeding would fit into the whole picture when returning to work. Thinking back now, I cannot even recall it coming up in conversation with colleagues!
Thankfully, I had been introduced to La Leche League shortly after giving birth. And by the time my return to work date had arrived, I was a very active member of La Leche League South Africa’s Facebook group. It was on that Facebook group that I was surprised to discover that working and breastfeeding mothers are protected by South African law. And employed mothers in South Africa are allowed breastfeeding or expressing breaks at work.
As a scientist by trade, I am a naturally curious person. That curiosity prompted me to dig further into South African maternity and breastfeeding or expressing break laws—and to discover how much those laws differed from other countries.
How South African law handles return-to-work issues
Under South African law, breastfeeding mothers are protected under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) applies to all employers and workers. It regulates maternity leave, working hours, employment contracts, deductions, pay slips, and termination in South Africa. [1 ]
Under the BCEA, a “Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child” (COGP)  provides guidelines and legal requirements for employers and employees regarding protecting women’s health from potential work environment hazards during pregnancy, after the birth of a child, and while breastfeeding. The code not only addresses hazardous working conditions; it also contains breastfeeding or expressing break requirements. Under the COGP, point 5.13 states:
“Arrangements should be made for employees who are breast-feeding to have breaks of 30 minutes twice per day for breast-feeding or expressing milk each working day for the first six months of the child’s life.”
After learning that I was allowed to express at work, I was faced with another challenge—where could I express at work? The modern design of my work building (glass walls and an open floor plan) wouldn’t provide much privacy for expressing! Locating an empty office felt like an impossible task with someone working in every single office. So, I was still doubtful about whether I would be allowed to express at work. I was so saddened to hear of some mothers expressing in toilet cubicles, and thinking they had to stop breastfeeding when returning to work. In many cases I heard of, it seemed mothers never even asked about the options available to them because they felt there were none. The option to express simply was never even considered or suggested by management.
A friend at work had returned from maternity leave around the same time I did, and we found ourselves facing this new challenge together. Having introduced her to La Leche League South Africa’s Facebook group, we both felt prepared and aware of how other mothers had navigated the challenge of expressing at work.
After managing to express in various locations, one manager suggested we use the sick bay for expressing. It is private and access controlled and contains a basin to rinse pump parts as well as comfortable seating. Finally, a setup I could work with! This would be my expressing bay at work for the remaining months until my son turned one year old. But unfortunately, that location wasn’t always available when I needed it. However, on the rare occasion that it wasn’t available I managed to find an alternate spot to express.
Misinformed South African employers may need prompting
Despite being legally bound to allow mothers to continue breastfeeding or expressing at work, many employers are not well informed on the COGP and do not adhere to it. Employed breastfeeding mothers are still being discriminated against and told they cannot express at work. Many employers feel it is up to company owners to decide whether to permit breastfeeding or expressing breaks. Mothers are often told the breastfeeding or expressing breaks are not paid breaks and these breaks are to be taken during lunch times or tea times. This is incorrect as paid lunch and tea breaks are provided for by BCEA.
If the expressing breaks were to only take place during lunch or tea breaks it wouldn’t need to be stated in the COGP on the “Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child.” These are all common misinterpretations of the COGP, and employers often use the broad terminology in the COGP to avoid granting employees paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks—either knowingly or from simply being misinformed on the topic.
The COGP protects breastfeeding employees by ensuring that they can continue to breastfeed when returning to work or expressing their milk for the first six months of baby’s life. The COGP does not specifically give clear guidance on providing a site for employees to express or a fridge for storage of expressed milk. Designating an “expressing bay” (a private expressing or pumping site) should go hand in hand with granting of breastfeeding or expressing breaks, but many employed mothers find themselves struggling to find appropriate places at work to express or to store their milk. Common practice is to make use of empty offices, conference rooms or storage rooms for expressing purposes. When fridges that have been designated for breast milk storage are not provided, mothers often use personal storage bags such as small cooler bags with ice packs inside to keep their milk cool during the day.
Comparing South Africa to the rest of the world
The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) recently released an advocacy tool called “Parents at Work: Leave & Breastfeeding Breaks by Country” that summarizes the breastfeeding or expressing breaks and mandated leave for 195 countries. You can check it out here: http://waba.org.my/paw-chart-2019/. This tool allows for a global look at where countries are in terms of breastfeeding support. Exploring this tool along with the laws in the following countries reveals some interesting truths.
- For most African countries, the maternity leave granted is between 1-14 weeks. 
- Social security is provided in 32 of the 53 African Countries (60%). 
Breastfeeding or expressing breaks:
- Most African countries provide paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks totalling 60 minutes, with country-specific limitations based on the age of the child. 
In South Africa, specifically:
- Government employees: Mothers are all allowed 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. 
- Non-government employees: Mothers are allowed 16 weeks of maternity leave, but some private companies offer more. Only the first six weeks from the day of birth are paid maternity leave. For any maternity leave taken beyond six weeks, pay is up to each individual employer’s discretion. 
- Both non-government and government employees: After using up their employer-paid maternity leave, some mothers want to take more maternity leave, even if unpaid by their employers. Mothers may negotiate with their employers for more time off from work, using annual leave and/or unpaid leave, however it is up to each individual employer’s discretion.
- Non-government employees: Mothers who contribute to the Department of Labour’s Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) are eligible to claim up to 60% of their gross monthly salary, if maternity leave of four months is not paid in full by their employer. 
Breastfeeding or expressing breaks:
- For both government and non-government employees, paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks are allowed until the child is six months old. 
- Non-government and government employers may offer designated lactation rooms for employees, complete with fridges for human milk storage, at their discretion. They are not under legal obligation to do so.
- Academic institutions are also coming on board with breastfeeding support on campuses in South Africa. For example, Stellenbosch University and the University of the Western Cape are two tertiary institutions that have unveiled breastfeeding or expressing rooms on their campuses.
Comparing all seven continents:
Europe and Central Asia are setting the best example, globally, for breastfeeding support:
- All except six of the 53 countries (11%) in Europe and Central Asia offer paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks. The six that don’t are the United Kingdom, Serbia, Malta, Iceland, Finland and Denmark. 
- Three countries in Europe and Central Asia have no explicit limit on the age of the child in reference to when mothers need to stop expressing at work during paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks. Way to go, Albania, Poland and Sweden! 
- The maternity leave in Europe and Central Asia is 13 ≥ 26 weeks, with most countries toward the higher end of that scale at 18 ≥ weeks. 
The United States pales in comparison to most countries on the topic of maternity leave and breastfeeding or expressing breaks:
- Mothers in the United States, according to the Department of Labor at https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla, and as mentioned in part in the WABA document, are granted 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. 
- Breastfeeding or expressing breaks at work are provided until the child is 12 months old, but these are unpaid breaks per the Department of Labor’s website. 
- In the United States, the “Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act”6 was recently passed, which should help move things in the right direction. This law requires federal buildings to offer lactation rooms. It also states that the room must be private. It must contain a chair, a working surface and an electric outlet. Hopefully more governments worldwide will follow suit.
In the Western Hemisphere, the maternity leave and breastfeeding or expressing breaks situation looks much better in South America than it does in North America:
- Sixty percent of countries offer paid expressing breaks for at least six months and beyond. 
- Maternity leave granted in these South American countries ranges from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. 
- Jamaica has a great deal of work to do though. Only 1-11 weeks maternity leave is offered there, with no breastfeeding or expressing breaks at all. 
Major successes and big areas to improve upon for maternity leave and breastfeeding or expressing breaks in the Arab States:
- The Arab States (including United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, etc.) have the lowest nationally mandated maternity leave globally, with just 1-11 weeks for most.
- In these states, most offer anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes per day of paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks, until the child is anywhere from 12 to 24 months old.
- Lebanon and Oman are the only two Arab State countries not providing any breastfeeding or expressing breaks.
Other interesting findings:
- Asia-Pacific countries (including Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, etc.) make up the highest number of countries worldwide not providing breastfeeding or expressing breaks, at 33% (14 out of 42 countries).
- The remaining 28 out of 42 countries (such as Philippines, Mongolia, etc.) provide paid breastfeeding or expressing breaks of 40 to 120 minutes, with limits based on the child’s age.
- Mothers in Indonesia and New Zealand are guaranteed breastfeeding or expressing breaks, with no explicit limit on the age of the child.
Change is worth the effort
Overcoming my initial difficulties paved the way for other colleagues after me to express at work, and for that I am grateful. Knowing there is a place to express and that breastfeeding or expressing breaks are being supported there helped ease other mothers’ stress about returning to work. I was excited to see most of my colleagues returning from their maternity leaves expressing for their babies.
The expressing breaks at my workplace are now part of a work policy, further supporting each breastfeeding employee’s right. Despite the South African code that only allows for paid breaks until a child is six months old, all expressing employees at my workplace are allowed breastfeeding or expressing breaks until they decide to stop expressing at work!
Still more progress to make
When it comes to breastfeeding and the issue of a working mother’s right to breastfeed, South African employers still have a lot of work to do. For far too long breastfeeding has not been considered a workplace issue. In South Africa, most mothers are compelled to work to financially support their families. Women are now also working in male dominated industries where the workplace has not yet evolved to accommodate breastfeeding employees, further limiting women’s right to express at work.
With that, companies are slow to realise how supporting breastfeeding benefits them. But just like there are companies not adhering to the COGP, there are many companies moving towards empowering their employees by having a designated space for expressing, equipped with fridges to store their milk in. These companies have realized the benefits of increased employee satisfaction and fewer employee days off due to babies receiving the immunological benefits of breast milk. These companies are also encouraging employee contentment and loyalty. This all adds up to a more productive workplace!
No matter which country you live in, it is not just the breastfeeding mother’s responsibility to fight for adequate maternity leave to bond with her baby and establish a strong milk supply. Or for the right to continued breast milk provision for her baby when the mom returns to work, by being granted adequate expressing breaks. It is her manager’s, colleagues’ and everyone’s responsibility!
1-Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 2019, https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/basic-conditions-employment-act or https://www.gov.za/documents/basic-conditions-employment-act (accessed 8 September 2019).
2-Code of Good Practice Basic Conditions of Employment and Pregnancy, 1998, http://www.labour.gov.za/DocumentCenter/Pages/Home.aspx (accessed 14 September 2019).
3-The University of Cape Town News, Why Breastfeeding Is a Workplace Issue, 10 May 2019, https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2019-05-10-why-breastfeeding-is-a-workplace-issue (accessed 17 September 2019).
4-World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, Parents At Work Advocacy Tool, 2019, http://waba.org.my/paw-chart-2019/ (accessed 14 September 2019).
5-Mywage.co.za, Maternity and Work, 2018, https://mywage.co.za/decent-work/maternity-and-work/maternity-leave (accessed 8 September 2019).
6-Congress.gov, Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019, 2019, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/866 or https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/528/text (accessed 4 August 2019).