Our last article on employment focused on the types of employment in Nigeria and ways through which those employments can be terminated in accordance with the law. This article focuses on the protection that Nigerian labour law provides for women in the course of carrying out the duties of their employment.

One burning issue is the ongoing discrimination of female employees on issues relating to maternity. Some establishments set up rules that female employees are prohibited from getting pregnant within a stipulated period of time after resuming their appointment. Failure to adhere to this rule has at times led to penalties such as automatic termination, demotion, deductions from salaries etc.

Examples of where women have been discriminated against in the workplace is where a pregnant single woman is denied the benefit of paid maternity leave on the basis of being unmarried or where a pregnant woman is expected to continue working up to her delivery date before she is permitted to go on maternity leave. In some organisations, a pregnant worker may be forced to resign and re-apply for her position after giving birth with no guarantee of getting the job back.

The Labour Act provides that in any establishment, a pregnant female employee is entitled to 6 weeks leave before her expected delivery date and another 6 weeks after delivery making a total of 12 weeks statutory leave. The Act also provides that any female employee that has worked with the establishment for a period of at least 6 months before proceeding on maternity leave is entitled to at least 50% of the salary she ought to have earned if she had been present at work.

The law also provides that every employee that is nursing a child is to be allowed 30 minutes twice a day during her working hours for the purpose of nursing her child. Where a woman is unable to resume work after her maternity leave because of conditions arising from her delivery, her employer cannot terminate her employment.

Although the attempts of the Labour Act to protect female employees from discrimination are laudable, its provisions are, however, limited in scope especially with respect to workers in the private sector whose employment are usually predicated on the contracts they enter into with their employers. Parties to a contract are bound by the provisions of the contract and, as we highlighted in our earlier article on employment, the principle of freedom of contracts is followed religiously in Nigeria. As such, where a female job seeker enters an employment contract with a company which provides that she is not entitled to maternity leave, the courts would uphold such contract because it was freely entered into by the job seeker.    

Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on Maternity Protection, an international Labour Organisation treaty. This treaty makes provision for employment security for pregnant and nursing mothers as it prohibits dismissal during pregnancy. It also makes provision for a guaranteed period of 16 weeks for maternity leave and also for female employees to return to the salary and posts they occupied before delivery. The convention has, however, not been domesticated by our National Assembly. Consequently, the treaty and its provisions are not applicable to Nigerian workers.

It is hoped that Nigeria will soon ratify this convention and give some succour to female workers in Nigeria irrespective of what sector of the economy they work.