Survey reveals impact on families of low maternity pay

Statutory maternity pay, at 47% of the national living wage and 37% of women’s median incomes, is forcing new mothers back to work early or into debt

Mother and baby

The cost of living crisis is affecting women living on low levels of maternity pay and benefits, and affecting their health and wellbeing, warns national charity, Maternity Action, in its new report, A Perfect Storm, launched today.

A survey of 1,394 mothers who had taken maternity leave at some point between January 2021 and December 2022 reported that, while on leave:

  •     half (49%) were buying less healthy food and one quarter had gone without food to feed their children
  •     71% worried ‘a lot’ about money during pregnancy or maternity leave, an increase from 64% in an equivalent 2022 survey
  •     60% of respondents had relied on a credit card or borrowed money to make ends meet, up from 51% in 2022
  •     58% also returned to work before they were fully recovered from the birth due to financial pressures

The report outlines how criteria for maternity pay unfairly excludes many women in insecure work, women whose pregnancies were unplanned or unexpected or who have had periods of illness. It also states that many women are going back to work sooner than they’d want due to maternity pay being too low.

One mother taking part in the research said: “I had to go back to work when my baby was only three months old. I am still at work now because we couldn’t afford to live, we had to take a £5,000 loan to keep us afloat for those three months because maternity pay wasn’t enough.

“In the end, despite the fact that I couldn’t afford it, I went onto statutory maternity and got 12 months with the baby. We literally food banked it. We survived that way.”

UNISON national women’s officer Bukky Akinwale said: “Everyone is feeling the impact of escalating costs of living, but it’s hitting new families particularly hard. The failure of maternity pay to keep up with increasing costs of living is driving many pregnant workers and new mothers into severe financial hardship.

“As a union with predominantly women members – over one million of them – raising awareness of the issues faced by pregnant workers, new mothers and families, protecting their rights and campaigning for change is an important part of our work.”

The report makes recommendations to the government on how to better support pregnant women, new mothers, babies and their families, including:

  •     criteria should be changed so that more women who have zero-hours contracts can quality for statutory maternity pay 
  •     statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance should be raised to at least the level of the national minimum wage
  •     rights and protections at work should be strengthened, including a right to flexible working and family friendly working arrangements
  •     women should be able to access legal advice and support with benefits entitlements and rights at work through their maternity service
  •     the 30-hour entitlement to childcare should be available to families straight after maternity leave

Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said: “The cost of living crisis has exacerbated long-term underinvestment in maternity pay and benefits.  We should be protecting the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies and not putting them at risk through financial stress.

“Statutory maternity pay is just 47% of the national living wage and only 37% of women’s median incomes. Families cannot make ends meet with the costs of a new baby and this dramatic drop in income. 

“All mothers should be able to afford a healthy pregnancy and time away from work to bond with their baby. Pregnant women and those with new babies should not be struggling to eat a healthy diet and pay for essentials.”

Read the full report here