This article originally appeared on VICE France.It’s December 2021 in the southwestern French region of Rhône-Alpes, and Mathilde* is driving her old, battered car along the bumpy roads of a small rural village in the area. She’s almost eight months pregnant, and yet she’s heading to visit her cows just a few kilometres away from her farm. A few minutes into our drive, a large pair of horns emerge from the thick fog. It’s zero degrees outside. Technically, Mathilde should be on maternity leave. Pregnant people in France are supposed to take six weeks off before giving birth and ten after. At a minimum, they have to take eight weeks off.
But instead of resting inside, in the warmth, waiting for her baby to come, Mathilde pulls down her woolly hat, covers her belly with yet another jumper and walks determinedly towards the herd. She lowers the electric fence and steps over it. Then, she approaches her animals, closely examining them and talking to them softly. She crouches down on the ground to greet a calf. The position is uncomfortable, she feels her baby pressing on her belly. Her feet sink into the muddy ground.Mathilde says she’ll likely continue working up until her delivery. “I can’t lose my connection to my cows, it’s too important for the future and the life of the herd,” she explains. “I am their point of contact. If there’s an issue, it’s only me who can intervene.” Mathilde is not alone. According to a 2022 report by the French Senate, only 58 percent of farmers go on maternity leave, despite the legal mandate to take eight weeks off.
Most small farms in France are run as family affairs and are often resistant to change. According to cattle farmer Natacha Guillemet, who also heads the local farmers’ union Coordination Rurale (Rural Coordination), pregnant farmers often worry the person that will replace them won’t measure up. “You feel like someone from the outside won’t be as involved in a farm that isn’t theirs,” she said. “Our farm and our animals are our life.”
On top of that, the actual process of requesting and obtaining a replacement in France is complicated. All agricultural workers in the country are part of a sector-specific social security scheme called Mutualité Sociale Agricole (MSA). When someone gets sick or is going to have a baby, they can apply for a substitute with the MSA’s official replacement programme, a network of organisations largely managed by volunteers who do their best to find covers. The problem is, the pool that these organisations draw from is pretty limited – only 15,000 workers are part of this system, mostly students and workers looking to make a bit of extra cash to start their own farm. That’s why farmers often end up having to look for their own replacement on social media or through acquaintances. If they’re successful in their search, the MSA pays the replacement’s wages.The process can be difficult to navigate, as sheep and goat farmer Juliette* found out during her pregnancy. She’d come home tired after a long day at work and would get totally overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork required. “All the papers they ask for make the procedure quite discouraging,” Juliette says. In over her head, she chose to give up before she’d officially begun.Mathilde went through similar difficulties. “You spend your time demanding it and fighting for it,” Mathilde said. “It’s an uphill battle.” After trying to source a replacement through official channels for months, she started desperately posting ads on Facebook in an attempt to recruit someone directly. Eventually, she managed to find two candidates. She ended up hiring both because, as beginners, they weren’t fully independent. This allowed her to slow down a bit, but she still had to work an hour or two each day on admin, training her replacements and keeping an eye on the animals.
But even if you do find workers willing to take the temp job, your problems won’t stop there. “You have to understand that there isn’t just one type of farming, but a wide range which involve lots of different jobs,” Natacha Guillemet said. In short, the replacement may not be a one to one match capable of carrying out all the tasks that need to be done at the farm, especially since so many people who take this kind of work have just started.
Given all these obstacles, it should come to no surprise that the vast majority of pregnant farmers end up not taking their regular maternity leave. We reached out to French farmers unions and conducted a survey of around forty agricultural workers who had recently sought to take maternity leave. Only 8 percent of them had obtained a replacement. But the law guarantees this leave for a reason – working while heavily pregnant is not only hard, but also risky both for the baby and for the parent. Sylvie*, a dairy farmer from the Ardennes region in northeastern France, had to continue working during her second pregnancy. Once, she was milking a cow while seven-and-a-half months pregnant when she received a kick in the stomach that struck her just a few centimetres from the baby’s head. She felt sick and vomited. Luckily, her baby was fine. “We had already started the replacement process before the accident,” Sylvie said, “but they told us there weren’t many people.” Surprisingly, after this episode, they found a cover for her quite quickly.
For Émilie Magrez, who owns a goat farm and works there alone, the situation was even more difficult during her first pregnancy in 2014. “The replacement service didn’t have anyone, so I had to work right to the end,” she said. “I was at risk of premature birth.” Alone on her farm, she had to do everything by herself – from milking the animals to delivering packages to carrying heavy items. “I knew that it was putting both of us in danger, but I had no choice, it was my bread and butter,” she said. Magrez ended up giving birth to her son at the end of her seventh month of pregnancy. Both of them experienced complications. Magrez developed preeclampsia, a condition characterised by high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine, which in serious cases can lead to seizures or coma. She also had other issues related to high blood pressure. Her baby had problems, too – born premature, he was too small and had an irregular heartbeat. Magrez said her gynaecologist and the hospital staff told her their health problems were related to her job.During her second pregnancy, Magrez found herself in the same predicament, as the replacement service still couldn’t find anyone to take over from her. She eventually did find someone on her own, just two weeks before giving birth at seven and a half months. Today, her two boys have neurodevelopmental problems, hyperactivity and dyscalculia, the equivalent of dyslexia for maths.
Occupational doctor Dominique Lafon, who specialises in risks associated with pregnancy at work, said that agriculture is right up there in terms of how dangerous a job can be during pregnancy. “Risks could arise from the chemical products used, the proximity to animals, and the very physical aspect of this profession,” he said. These risks aren’t restricted to agricultural jobs, but “farmers tick all the boxes” confirmed Elisabeth Marcotullio, director of the National Institute for Agricultural Medicine (INMA). In this line of work you need to be able to perform multiple tasks, “So, the same person is exposed to many different risks,” Marcotullio said. In particular, pregnant farmers could be impacted by the consequences of “what we also call awkward postures,” she continued, “like standing for a long time, bending over, squatting,...” All of these factors combined can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and giving birth to babies that are too small. In his report from 2012, which summarises multiple studies on the subject, Dr Lafon also mentions high blood pressure and preeclampsia as potential consequences of hard work during pregnancy.When asked about these severe implications for the parents’ and babies’ health, a spokesperson for the MSA insisted these were “exceptional cases.”
Franck Laur, the director of the MSA’s replacement system recognised his service too often falls short on providing personnel for maternity covers quickly. However, he blamed the problem on the general workforce crisis engulfing the entire sector. In fact, Laur believes agricultural jobs are currently unattractive to young people because farming is hard work for a low pay. “To take care of animals, you have to work weekends and nowadays there aren’t many people who want to do that,” he said. On top of these difficulties and risks during pregnancy, the women interviewed by VICE said they also had to go back to work very quickly and juggle caring for their babies at the same time as their jobs. Mathilde gave birth at the end of January. Everything went fine, but she had to go back to work only a few weeks later, in February, for calving season. In other words, she had to sacrifice her own maternity leave to be there for her pregnant animals when they needed her.*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ anonymity. All the farmers interviewed for the piece had to work at least part-time during their maternity leave, which is technically not allowed. As a result, they fear they’d be asked to pay back the wages provided under the MSA’s replacement scheme.