With the announcement of 26 weeks’ fully paid maternal leave late last week, IKEA might be well ahead of the pack in Australia, but they are still laggards in world terms.

According to a former IKEA Human Resources Manager, 52 weeks on 75% pay is more like the world standard. Australia and the US are the slowest in the IKEA network to adopt meaningful parental leave. Small African states were ahead of us on this.

The slow pick-up of lengthier paid parental leave by IKEA reflects the current lack of parental leave legislation in both countries. In the US, there are still no laws addressing parental paid leave at all and in Australia, the Federal Government has delayed the roll-out of paid parental leave until 2011. By contrast, in Sweden, the motherland of IKEA, paid maternity leave is legislated with 16 months leave for parents at 80% of full pay for most of that time.

Peter List, Australian National HR Manager for IKEA, told Crikey that IKEA’s paid maternity leave reflects the local country legislation but always aims above the benchmark; “there is not a global IKEA standard maternity leave provision.”

In Australia, IKEA introduced paid maternity as part of a collective agreement back in 2002, and according to List, IKEA always offers more in order to attract and retain good staff.

In the UK, where the legal requirement is for 39 weeks of paid maternity leave, IKEA has added an extra 12 weeks at 50% of pay to this amount.

IKEA remains a tightly held, largely family owned, caring company. The company goes to market trying to create a better everyday life and recognises that it should start with their own teams. The company seeks to build trust with its team members and to develop people. Having spent time and money on staff, it makes sense to hang on to them and maximise retention. Offering paid parental leave is a powerful tool.

IKEA will become an employer of choice at a time when it is getting harder to attract the best to retail careers.

They also recognise that parental leave makes great business sense. A new person to a role takes up to six months to become truly effective. People returning from parental leave hit the ground running.

Like many local retailers, the Australian arm of IKEA appears to be doing relatively well. Australia is in the top ten countries for the company. Expansion plans are in place here while internationally IKEA is cutting costs and slowing its headlong growth.

Founder Ingvar Kamprad (of Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd) has flagged staff cutbacks overseas. “We need to decrease the number of staff further, particularly within manufacturing and logistics,” Kamprad told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. “It’s about adjusting to sales being a lot less and becoming more efficient.”

But not all costs are equal. Parental leave should improve profitability. It will be a slow process, accompanied by teeth gnashing, but eventually parental leave of this order will become almost universally available. But until then, companies like IKEA will have a competitive advantage.

Kamprad’s view is that IKEA is in business forever. They take the long view.

Most large retailers are doing okay at the moment, at a time when small retailers are feeling the pinch, having not benefited from recent Rudd largesse as much as the big players. IKEA’s move has the potential to widen the gap.

Major retailers Myer and Woolworths have each just announced offers of six weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees while Mission Australia offers nine weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees, 70% percent of whom are women.

IKEA’s new offer places it equal first among employers in Australia with Macquarie University already offering 26 weeks’ paid parental leave for their employees.