The ACTU has warned the federal government that paid maternity leave is not negotiable and must be delivered in next year’s budget.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged in September that the government would “bite the bullet” and introduce a scheme, but the global financial crisis has placed a question mark over a range of government plans.

The ACTU wants the government to adopt the Productivity Commission’s interim recommendation for a universal $1.3 billion scheme of 18 weeks paid maternity leave with a $70 million employer top-up.

Australia and the United States are the only developed nations without a universal paid parental leave scheme.

ACTU president Sharan Burrow says commitment to a paid leave scheme is more important than ever in a time of global financial uncertainty.

“It will also provide immediate relief to families, 60 per cent of which rely on two incomes to pay bills, mortgages or rent,” Burrow said.

But the release of the government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook earlier this month, which showed a $40 billion decline in forecast government revenue, has placed a range of plans in jeopardy.

At the time, Treasurer Wayne Swan said everything was on the table except the government’s commitment to pensions reform and the introduction of an emissions trading scheme in 2010.

While Labor set up the inquiry into paid maternity leave and promised to introduce a scheme, it made no specific promise it would be delivered in the May budget.

The final Productivity Commission report is due to be handed to the government in February.

Ms Burrow said a universal scheme would improve female workforce participation, allow employers to retain skilled staff and reduce retraining and rehiring costs.

“Paid maternity leave means women can be with their babies without financial stress or worrying about losing their job,” Burrow said.

“It also means they can return to work in good physical and mental health.”

While nearly half of women have access to some form of paid leave offered privately by their employers in Australia, the majority only have unpaid leave.

The proposed 18-week scheme also provided for two weeks of paid leave for fathers on a use it or lose it basis and proposed a payment for stay-at-home mothers.

The ACTU will make its final submission to the commission’s inquiry at a public hearing in Melbourne on Friday.