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The US is one of just three countries not to guarantee any paid maternity leave, a policy that costs the country dearly, the UN’s labour agency says.

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Only Papua New Guinea, Oman and the US – the world’s largest economy – do not require employers to provide paid leave, according to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report entitled The State of Maternity and Paternity at Work, published on Tuesday.

Under US national law, all new mothers can take up to 12 weeks off after giving birth, but without any pay guaranteed.

“Definitely, the (US) society is losing out,” said Laura Addati, a maternity protection and work-family specialist at the ILO.

Elsewhere in the world, the report showed countries were generally raising mandatory cash benefits and extending the amount of time both mothers and fathers can stay home after the birth of a child.

Eastern European and Central Asian countries were the most generous, with public funds providing women in Croatia for instance 100 per cent of their salary during a year-long maternity leave.

The Scandinavian countries also performed well, with Norway allowing both parents a combined year and 10 months off – with four months reserved exclusively for the father – and receive 80 per cent of their salaries while they’re away.

Shauna Olney, who heads the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch, hailed such initiatives aimed at getting fathers to carry more of the burden at home and thus help iron out gender inequality at work.

“There is a growing recognition of the link with gender equality and also the importance of the role of fathers in child development,” she told reporters, stressing the need “to change perceptions of parenting roles and of prevailing stereotypes”.

A large majority of women workers in the world, some 830 million of them, meanwhile do not have access to “adequate maternity protection”, according to ILO standards.

These require at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave and a guarantee the woman will get her job back when she returns.

Nearly 80 per cent of those women live in Africa and Asia, the UN agency said.

The ILO says only 12 per cent of US women working in the private sector have access to paid leave, and the percentage drops to just five per cent for low-wage workers.

This often puts women and their families in an impossible position, forcing them “to choose between their health and the health of their child and income security of their families”.

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