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Mothers paid 47% of minimum wage while on maternity leave

·5-min read
Maternity Action says mothers and new babies are bearing the brunt of the poverty crisis and is calling for statutory maternity pay to be increased  (PA Archive)
Maternity Action says mothers and new babies are bearing the brunt of the poverty crisis and is calling for statutory maternity pay to be increased (PA Archive)

Statutory maternity pay should be increased in line with the national living wage, says the charity Maternity Action, as 96 per cent of women say they worry about money while on maternity leave.

Maternity pay increased to £156.66, from £151.97 per week at the start of April, a rise of 3.1 per cent. Yet as inflation was seven per cent in March, the amount has fallen in real terms.

This figure is equivalent to 45 per cent of the National Living Wage, or minimum age, for a 35-hour week at a rate of £9.50 per hour.

This is leading to many women facing ‘intolerable hardship’ at a time when they should be recovering from pregnancy and birth, says Maternity Action.

It says mothers and new babies are bearing the brunt of the poverty crisis and is calling for statutory maternity pay (SMP) to be increased.

Recent data from the charity shows that 96 per cent of women worry about money while on maternity leave, and for 51 per cent this impacts their health and wellbeing. A further 51 per cent said they rely on credit cards or loans and 52 per cent are forced back to work early for financial reasons.

Separate research from Fidelity shows just 45 per cent of women feel financially independent and 19 per cent are worried about how to support themselves or their family.

The amount currently being paid out is less than it has been previously, when compared with the living wage. In 2012, for example, the basic maternity rate was equivalent to 62.5 per cent of the minimum wage.

It has also declined in relation to women’s median weekly earnings, from 42 per cent in 2012 to 37 per cent. This means a new mother is expected to survive on just over a third of women’s average earnings for almost eight months. When compared to men’s median earnings, SMP is just 26 per cent.

This is at a time when inflation is at a 30-year high, the cost of everything we spend money on is rising rapidly and we’re coming out of a pandemic where women were significantly impacted.

The charity points out that the national living wage is the legal minimum someone should be paid, yet new parents are expected to survive on just 45 per cent of this for up to 33 weeks or more if they’re not eligible for SMP.

Maternity pay varies hugely, and as someone about to give birth to my second child, it’s an area I’m very familiar with.

Among the women I know who have had babies, or are about to, the amount they’ll get is a game of luck.

Some of the most generous employers pay six months of full pay, while others drop to SMP after the first six weeks.

There is no consistency among companies, and often women don’t find out until after they’ve started working somewhere what the maternity pay is like.

Most people I know don’t even question the fact maternity pay is so dismal in the UK anymore, possibly because they feel powerless to change it. It’s just become an accepted fact that despite working our whole lives, we’ll have years of earning very little (especially when childcare costs kick in) if we have children while still having all the same outgoings.

Given that it was handily absent from the recent Spring Statement, it would appear the government is happily avoiding the topic too.

Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said: “The perinatal period is so critically important for the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies, but many are facing intolerable hardship at a time when they should be recovering from pregnancy and birth.

“On top of this, we’re seeing a sharp increase in women forced out of work because of maternity discrimination, so they may not even have jobs to return to.

“It’s a perfect storm of deprivation for many women on maternity leave and their children.”

Statutory maternity pay is the basic amount available to most women. It’s available for those who earn at least £123 a week, have given the correct notice to their employer and have worked for the same company continuously for at least 26 weeks.

For those in a PAYE job, it is paid for up to 39 weeks and equivalent to 90 per cent of average pay for the first six weeks, and then the lower of this amount or £156.66 for the remaining 33 weeks.

There’s also maternity allowance for self-employed workers or those who aren’t eligible for SMP.

While amounts vary, it’s even lower for those who are self-employed at between £27 to £156.66 a week for 39 weeks.

Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of Pregnant then Screwed – which is staging a national protest on October 29 to ask that parental pay is ringfenced, properly paid and childcare is affordable – said: “We have some of the lowest rates of parental leave pay in the world, which forces many parents to return to work before they are ready and leaves many more in debt.

“If you add this to the rising cost of childcare, with two-thirds paying more or the same for the childcare as their rent or their mortgage, then you can see how having a child is not considered to be financially viable for many couples.”

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