KARLA González said her decision to return to work with her six-week-old daughter was a personal one; as was her decision last week to resign from her post as second in charge at the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT).
Despite her best efforts to avoid being the center of a national debate on mothers’ rights, the vice-minister’s actions – printed in national newspapers and flashed on the evening news – fanned the flames of such a discussion.
While some believe González’s work environment made returning to work with her baby – without tak-ing the required four months of maternity leave – possible and acceptable, others insist such actions would have repercussions that would set Costa Rica’s women’s rights movement back ten years.
IT was the image of González returning to work with her baby on a television newscast that inspired the initial protest.
After watching the news in her San Ramón home, retired teacher Rocío Céspedes filed an injunction with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) March 16.
Céspedes maintains the right of a mother to take one month of maternity leave before her child is born and three months after cannot be renounced. She said she filed the injunction to protect not only the child, but also the mother.
The former educator said she fears if women are allowed the choice of whether to take maternity leave, they could be pressured by employers – who must pay half their salary during the four-month leave – to return to work early.
“We have spent many years fighting for these rights,” she said. “When one person (renounces them), especially on television, it invites others to do the same.”
GONZÁLEZ responded to the injunction by announcing her resignation March 19, saying she did not want herself or her newborn to become the epicenter of a national debate.
“It is very serious that for diverse interests, the theme of maternity has been politicized,” she said, according to La Nación.
While González did not clarify the “diverse interests,” and Céspedes insists she has no motivations beyond concern for mothers and their babies, it is clear the issue goes beyond these two women.
“The really central problem is beyond this particular situation,” said Mauricio Castro, legal advisor for the National Association of Public Employees (ANEP).
He said ANEP is working toward a policy in which the Social Security System (Caja) would pay the entire salary of women on maternity leave. Currently the Caja pays half and the employer pays half.
THE proposal would eliminate the possibility of employers pressuring pregnant employees to give up their maternity leave by removing economic pressures, Castro said.
“The cost is almost unmanageable for small businesses, because they must pay 50 % of the salary, plus the salary of somebody to replace the woman,” he said.
Castro said he believes violations of the maternity labor code “happen all the time.”
However, Eric Briones, head of the legal inspection department at the Labor Ministry, denied such violations are common, and said they are brought to justice when complaints are filed.
The law is extremely clear, Briones said. Under the Constitution, rights defined under the labor code, like that of maternity leave, cannot be renounced.
PRESIDENTAbel Pacheco called González’s resignation, “a loss for Costa Rica.”
The Minister of Public Works and Transport, Javier Chaves, said in a statement that he recognized the many achievements made by the vice-minister, but has decided not to replace her.
Instead, he said, he will rearrange the position’s duties within the ministry. The Tico Times attempted to interview González, but she did not return phone calls this week.
The National Women’s Institute also did not answer requests for comments on the issue this week.
OTHER women point out it was the nature of her job that allowed González the freedom to return to work with her infant daughter.
“This situation is one of privilege,” said Ana Hernández, director of the association Alliance of Costa Rican Women.
“Most other jobs would not allow their workers to bring their children to work the way she did. The situation of privilege cannot prevail over the laws that exist to protect all women in Costa Rica,” she said.
Like Césped es, Hernández not only worries about the threat of pressure on women to forego maternity leave, she also expressed concern about the effects of the work environment on a baby.
“This time is necessary for a mother and child to be together to bond, with care and love,” she said. “The mother needs rest too.”
THE Child Welfare Office (PANI) received informal requests from the Sala IV and MOPT to evaluate the situation after the injunction was filed, according to executive president Rosalía Gil. Because no formal requests were received, no investigation was opened, she said.
While in general principle, PANI does not believe most workplaces are appropriate for children, Gil said allowing such activity depends on the situation.
“She did not take her maternity leave because she was working very hard,” Gil said. “And she did not want to be separated from the baby. As far as I am concerned, the mother has to be near the baby in those early months. She also had a work environment very different from other people.”
GIL said she believes a change in public policy could eliminate some of the debate regarding the issue. More childcare centers should be opened in work places, she said.
A bill to further share child-care responsibilities was submitted to the Legislative Assembly in May 2003 by deputy José Miguel Corrales.
The proposal would change the labor code to allow fathers of newborn children to be excused from work the day of their child’s birth and two days after it. They also would be allowed one hour a day off work to attend to their family.
“FROM the moment a woman becomes pregnant she begins to feel pressures – socially, economically, culturally and from her work,” Castro said. “But we consider the theme of maternity to be not just exclusively that of the mother, and the parents, but of society as a whole.”