A labour of love

(UNHCR / S. Phelps / December 2013)
(UNHCR / S. Phelps / December 2013)

For any woman who has given birth, it would come as no surprise that ‘giving birth’ is also aptly referred to as ‘being in labour’. It’s quite a clever alternative expression when you come to think of it. The word labour has at least another dozen meanings, which are variously described as ‘physical work for wages’, ‘having difficulty doing something’, ‘striving hard at something’ and ‘to be burdened by something’.

Giving birth is one of the most physically and emotionally intense times in a woman’s life, but being a mother entails a lifetime of parenting and, one could say, labouring. It requires physical and mental stamina, which means that mothers, birthing or not, need to be in optimal health from the outset.

Tomorrow marks the World Day for Safety and Health at Work and the timing is appropriate with Mother’s Day just around the corner, because for most mums, the real workplace is at home.

Women’s unpaid labour in the home continues to be a significant issue in women’s activism. Someone recently calculated the market salary of a stay-at-home mum (it’s$96,700 p.a., in case you want to invoice your kids, your partner, and/or the prime minister) and while being a mother is indeed a priceless experience, the fact remains that any work that requires a woman to be on-call 24/7 with no leave entitlements, no healthcare, no chance of a raise or other benefits  borders on exploitation. Let’s face it, despite a number of helpful dads out there, it’s women who still do the bulk of the housework. Just as well we can call it a labour of love.

Many immigrant women in paid work are also mothers. Feminists around the world have long championed the labour rights of immigrant women, a group who are subject to, and made more vulnerable by, exploitative work practices. We might be able to say the same things about immigrant women’s ‘labour rights’ in the maternity ward. In every study conducted to date (see here, here and here), immigrant women have rated their maternity care much less positively than Australian-born women.  Reasons for this include problems with communication and being left alone and unsupported during childbirth. Interpreters are also rarely available for women during labour, except when a medical decision is being made, and very often only by telephone.

So how can we begin to improve the labour experience of immigrant women? There’sevidence that shows continuous support during childbirth promotes shorter labour and is associated with lower rates of medical intervention, including caesarean sections.  It would make perfect sense, then, to have immigrant women supported by bilingual companions who speak their language and who can provide them with the support they need during their labour.  It’s a bit like implementing good occupational health and safety practices on the first day of a lifetime of labouring.

MCWH has partnered with the Judith Lumley Centre, Latrobe University on the ‘Bilingual Labour Companion Project’, which will match trained bilingual health educators with immigrant and refugee women giving birth at the Royal Women’s Hospital.  If you would like to know more about this project, please contact the MCWH Senior Research and Policy Advocate, Dr Regina Quiazon regina@mcwh.com.au