Last month, an Australian MP, Larissa Waters, became a global sensation when she was filmed breastfeeding her three-month baby, Alia Joy, while passing a Motion in the Senate.
This was not a mean feat because traditionally baby nursing has been restricted to a home, but with such a daring act by the legislator, the issue of how employers should treat women of child-bearing age came to the fore.
Interestingly, in June, the Kenya National Assembly passed the Health Bill, which among other things, requires employers to provide space and facilities for mothers with young children to take breaks and nurse them while in their workplaces. While some local companies have provided breastfeeding rooms for their employees, this is the first time such a provision has been written into law. If assented to, employers with more than 30 employees will be required to set up baby-friendly facilities, including refrigeration, at the workplace for breastfeeding mothers.
Since it was passed by Parliament, the Bill has attracted both approval and criticism in equal measure.
Notably, the Institute of Human Resource Management, the regulatory body for human resource professionals in Kenya has opposed it, saying that it risks “marginalising women of childbearing age”.
The IHRM fears that employers will shun or let go women of childbearing age because having them will add to their operational cost.
While these fears are justified to some extent, there are compelling reasons why the President should sign this Bill into law.
I will highlight four ways in which employers will stand to benefit more by creating a conducive environment for breastfeeding mothers.
In Kenya, the Employment Act only allows mothers to take three months of maternity leave. This means that babies are still very young by the time the employee is returning to work and are still attached to their mothers.
It is then only natural that breastfeeding mothers worry about the safety of their children while they are away. They are probably thinking about when they will leave the office to go and breastfeed their babies. So imagine the burden you would lift off your employees if you adhered to the potential new law and gave them space to nurture their children while working for the organisation.
Not only would employees return to work without fear of breast milk leakage or spoils, they would be so grateful to the company, and in turn, put in their best effort.
Secondly, when an employee wants a day off from work, they will give many excuses and reasons. Some may be true, some made up. When it comes to breastfeeding mothers, this time off may be taken more frequently than appears necessary to the employer. Unfortunately, you cannot assume that an employee has faked illness and use this to deny them days off. All things being constant, the potential new law, however, will help reduce the time new mothers are absent from work.
Furthermore, do you know those specialised workers that your company cannot afford to lose? Those employees in key positions who are really hard to replace? Every company has such employees. If they are women of childbearing age and your company does not facilitate for their comfort, you might end up losing them! They might decide to quit for the wellness of their new babies, or move to competitors who provide facilities for breastfeeding mothers.
Generally speaking, this Bill is more about winning than losing. At first glance, it may appear it will increase costs for employers, but the return on investment will be worth it.
Perminus Wainaina is the managing partner and head of recruitment at Corporate Staffing Services.