Maternity, paternity and parental rights

Due to the nature of their work – often moving between countries – seafarers can face jurisdictional barriers in accessing employment-related rights.

However, any seafarer serving on an European Economic Area (EEA)-registered vessel, residing in the EU or working for an EEA employer, may qualify for such rights in the relevant EEA member state. UK parental rights in law also derive from EU legislation.

The ILO recommends that pregnancy should be declared at an early stage so that national recommendations on antenatal care and screening can be followed.

Health and safety

Many women work while they are pregnant, and many return while they are still breastfeeding. However, the particular demands of working onboard ship can place pregnant workers at risk. Very few merchant ships carry doctors, and in the event of problems developing during pregnancy, an equivalent level of care to that available to an expectant mother working ashore is unlikely.

For example, sophisticated investigations for abnormalities, which may be needed fairly urgently, could not be duplicated even on a ship with medical facilities. In addition, ship turnaround in ports is often very rapid, allowing no time for routine antenatal care.

Seafarers must also take into account what would happen if a mother went into premature labour while onboard ship.

Cessation of work

The ILO/IMO Guidelines on the Medical Examinations of Seafarers advise that the normal date for the cessation of work for expectant mothers employed at sea is 24 weeks. This is because the survival of a premature infant born at 24 to 28 weeks is now common with good onshore neonatal intensive care.

Pregnancy and maternity rights in the UK

Nautilus has produced a guide to the legal framework surrounding pregnancy, maternity/paternity/parental leave in the UK.  

As such it will mainly apply to seafarers serving on UK flagged vessels.

A summary of the rights set out in the guide is as follows:

Employers are required to assess risks to all workers and to do all that is reasonably practicable to control those risks. They also specifically require the employer to take particular account of risks to expectant and new mothers in that risk assessment.

If there is a significant risk at work to the safety and health of a new or expectant mother, which goes beyond the level of risk to be expected outside the workplace, then the actions must be taken to remove her from that risk.

Special consideration must be given to a new or expectant mother who works at night.

Where a seafarer wishes to delay the start of her maternity leave after the 24th week, she should agree with the employer any necessary changes to her duties and her hours of work. The employer must undertake a risk assessment.

It unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a woman due to pregnancy or maternity.

If a pregnant employee has, on the advice of a registered doctor, midwife or nurse, made an appointment for ante–natal care, she is entitled to time off with pay during her working hours to attend the appointment.

Any employee who is pregnant is entitled to ordinary maternity leave (OML), regardless of the period in which she has been in employment. The OML will generally last for 26 weeks.

Any employee who qualifies for OML now qualifies automatically for additional maternity leave (AML). AML runs for 26 weeks, commencing on the day after the last day of the OML. The employee may return to work earlier if she wishes, but she must give her employer at least eight weeks' notice of the date on which she intends to return.

Some employees (but not all) will have the right to statutory maternity pay (SMP). SMP is subject to the employee meeting specific qualifying criteria. The main condition is that she must have been continually employed (whether required to work or not) by her employer for at least 26 weeks ending with the week immediately preceding the 14th week before the expected week of child birth.

If an employee does not qualify for SMP, she may be entitled to Maternity Allowance (MA). MA for 39 weeks is for those who:

  • are employed, but do not qualify for SMP
  • are self-employed and pay Class 2 National Insurance Contributions (including voluntary payments) for at least 13 of the 66 weeks before the baby is due – the amount of MA will depend on how much Class 2 National Insurance Contributions she has paid
  • have recently stopped working.
'Paternity' rights in the UK

An employee will be entitled to 'paternity' leave if he or she is the child's father or is married to or is the civil partner or partner of the child's mother. There are other qualifying conditions, but the employee must have been continuously employed for at least 26 weeks ending with the week immediately preceding the 14th week before the expected week of childbirth.

It should be noted that a person will not be entitled to paternity leave if he or she has taken any shared parental leave in respect of the child.

Parental leave in the UK

Any employee with one year's continuous service who has (or expects to have) responsibility for a child is entitled to take unpaid parental leave for the purpose of caring for that child. 'Responsibility' means parental responsibility or registration as the child's father. The period applicable for parental leave is a maximum of 18 weeks per child and may only be taken up until the child's 18th birthday.

Shared parental allows a woman who fulfils certain conditions to bring her statutory maternity leave and pay to an end by curtailing it, and sharing the balance with her partner, spouse, civil partner or the father of her child. It may only be shared with one other person.

Equivalent rights are afforded to adoptive parents and parents who adopt through a surrogacy arrangement.

Pregnancy and maternity rights in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, pregnant employees are entitled to pregnancy and maternity leave, for at least sixteen weeks on 100% of normal pay.

The period of leave depends on the due date and on the actual birth date. Pregnancy leave can be taken from six weeks before the date the baby is due and should start no later than four weeks before the baby is due. After birth, there is an entitlement to at least ten weeks of maternity leave, even if the baby is born later than it was due.

The 16 weeks can sometimes be extended in the case of illness after giving birth or when there have been childbirth complications.

Pregnancy and maternity rights in Switzerland

In the event that a crew member becomes pregnant in the course of her employment:

  • the company should return the seafarer to their home country as soon as is reasonable, but no later than the 26th week of pregnancy. If the ship's activities prove to be dangerous to the pregnant crew member, the return should take place at the first port of call;
  • the seafarer is entitled to their basic wage for 100 days;
  • the seafarer is given priority in filling a suitable position that is the same or is comparable to that which they previously held. This applies for a three years period after the birth of a child.
Outside the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland

For those serving on non-UK vessels, there are other sources of rights which they may be in a position to benefit from, depending on their individual circumstances.

Such rights may derive from the flag state, country of residence, collective bargaining agreements or company staff handbook or maternity/paternity policies.

Where do I find more information?

Members wanting further information about their own situation are advised to contact their industrial organiser in My Nautilus in the first instance.

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