Research on maternity entitlements for women in the informal economy informs new Senate Bill in the Philippines

Aug 04 2021

Legislators in the Philippines have drafted a bill that would provide a maternity cash transfer to new mothers working in the informal sector, leveraging Alive & Thrive research on the costs of such a program.

Hundreds of thousands of women work in the informal sector in the Philippines. A new bill would provide a cash transfer that would allow informal sector workers to receive a maternity entitlement. Here, Abigail leaves her young daughter with the child’s grandmother as she sets off to her job.

“The senate had a working bill in process to provide maternity entitlements for informal sector workers,” explained Paul Zambrano, technical advisor in the Alive & Thrive regional office in Southeast Asia and based in Manila. “But it was missing the estimated cost of the benefit. We provided the missing piece. It was exactly the information they needed.”

Maternity leave is correlated with increased rates of exclusive breastfeeding and longer breastfeeding but, unlike her formal sector counterpart, a woman working in the informal sector who gives birth is unlikely to take time off from work – because she will lose income if she does. Giving a new mother a cash payment would effectively enable her to take maternity leave and promote breastfeeding.

PHOTOSTORY: Learn more about the breastfeeding experiences of working mothers in the Philippines: a new generation of mothers in the Philippines is showing that with support from the government, workplaces, communities and families, mothers can combine breastfeeding and work. Abigail, pictured above, is one of them.

Current maternity leave law in the Philippines “provides entitlements women working in the informal economy who are paying members of the social security system,” explained Janice Datu-Sanguyo, an Alive & Thrive advocacy consultant based in Manila. The problem lies in how women in the informal sector can actually access those entitlements, given that most of them cannot afford to pay social security, she said. 

“For a woman working in the public sector or formal private sector, it’s easy to claim the entitlement – you have a certain number of days of paid leave,” Datu-Sanguyo said. “For a new mother in the informal sector, she cannot simply take the days off – she will lose her income.” 

Globally, about 60% of all jobs are considered “informal” – including the work of an estimated 740 million women, according to the International Labor Organization. In the Asia-Pacific Region, 64% of women employees are working informal jobs and in Africa, 90%. By contrast, 24% of women are informal workers in Europe and Central Asia. 

Informal sector jobs include those not recognized as generating normal income in an economy. Informal workers do not declare their income and do not pay taxes. The work they do is as diverse as formal work, and includes selling goods along sidewalks, carrying goods for others (porters), laboring in construction, and operating means of transport. 

If the Philippines passes the new bill, it would join a select few countries that have implemented measures to ensure the rights of mothers working in the informal sector are respected.

But the nature of informal sector work makes workers practically invisible to many, particularly government offices, said Susanita “Babes” Tesiorna, president of the Alliance of Workers in the Informal Economy/Sector (ALLWIES). The exact number of informal workers in the Philippines is unknown, but is estimated to be over half, 54%, of the total labor force.

Susanita Tesiorna
Susanita Tesiorna, president of the Alliance of Workers in the Informal Sector/Economy.

“The lack of statistics is a major issue,” Tesiorna said. The invisibility of informal workers prevents them accessing government entitlements, she said.

“Policy is oriented toward traditional employees,” she explained. “Policymakers are slowly hearing us, but it is probably because of the statistical visibility” provided by the research.

In “The financing need for expanding paid maternity leave to support breastfeeding in the informal sector in the Philippines,” Alive & Thrive researchers estimated the number of informal workers and the proportion who are women. They then estimated the number of these women who would become pregnant during a normal year and so would qualify for maternity entitlements.

The researchers then calculated the financing need to provide a cash payment based on different scenarios: the number of weeks a mother would receive the payment as well as the payment amount.

“The ILO sets a minimum standard of 14 weeks of maternity leave, but 26 weeks is even more beneficial as it aligns with WHO’s recommendation of six months of exclusive breastfeeding,” Zambrano said. “We used three benchmarks to develop estimates for how much should be given to a new mother on a weekly basis – the poverty line, the minimum wage, and the average weekly salary.”

Applying the various parameters – the estimated number of new mothers in the informal sector, duration of the payment, and the amount – showed that the government could provide the entitlement for a minimum of US$42 million (for a 14-week maternity cash transfer) to US$309 million (for a 26-week maternity cash transfer). 

Philippines law
A draft of the new law - Senate Bill No. 2175 - was posted to the website of the Philippines Senate, representing an important step forward, advocates said.

“The latter (US$42 million) is financially feasible as it is equivalent to less than 0.1% of the country's gross domestic product, substantially lower than the cost of not breastfeeding (0.7%),” the researchers wrote in the journal article.

Spending the money is the right thing to do because it would save the lives of thousands of infants and mothers, demonstrated in Alive & Thrive’s Cost of Not Breastfeeding tool. It also is necessary to protect women’s human rights: The right to maternity protection is enshrined in various human rights treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But it also makes compelling economic sense. Given that it would likely increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding, a maternity cash transfer would save the government millions of dollars because fewer infants would require treatment for diarrhea and other illnesses at health facilities.

Philippines labour day forum
Hundreds of stakeholders, including informal workers and staff from the offices of elected representatives (among others), participated in a Labour Day forum where the research was presented and the new law discussed. Shortly afterward, legislators introduced a draft of the law in the Senate.

In the Philippines, the current cost to the health care system or the treatment of children with diarrhea and pneumonia that visit a health facility due to inadequate breastfeeding is estimated to be over US$16.3 million per year. This cost could rise dramatically as the health system coverage of treatment for diarrhea and pneumonia increases but could also be reduced with increased breastfeeding practices. 

At a presentation during the Labor Day for the informal sector in the Philippines, Zambrano and the article’s lead author, Valerie Gilbert Ulep, presented the research at a forum, attended by hundreds of informal workers, representatives of the Department of Labor and Employment, and staff from the offices of elected representatives. It was at that forum, held online due to the pandemic, that legislators committed to pushing forward with the new law.

“The entry of working pregnant women in the informal economy shows their strength and resilience, but let’s not forget that pregnancy is a unique opportunity in the lives of women,” the chair of the Senate Committee on Women and Children, Sen. Risa Hontiveros told news media in the Philippines.

Despite its potential to save lives and improve the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of families in the Philippines, advocates say much work remains to be done to see the bill become a law. 

“I am very hopeful that this will become the law,” Tesiorna said. “The informal sector is now more visible, and we are starting our campaign.”

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