Vodafone is to become one of the first multinationals to introduce a worldwide minimum level of maternity pay, it announced today. 

It will offer women 16 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave, plus full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after their return to work. 

The company's chief executive Vittorio Colao said the policy would help more than 1,000 female employees every year in countries with little or no statutory maternity care. 

Vodafone announced the policy as it revealed analysis commissioned from KPMG showed global businesses worldwide could save £12.5 billion a year annually by providing 16 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave. 

It found recruiting and training new employees to replace women who leave the workforce after having a baby costs £30.9 billion, higher than the £18.4 billion cost of the extra benefits. 

"Too many talented women leave working life because they face a difficult choice between either caring for a newborn baby or maintaining their careers," the Vodafone CEO said. 

"Women account for 35% of our employees worldwide, but only 21% of our international senior leadership team. We believe our new maternity policy will play an important role in helping to bridge that gap," he said.

"Supporting working mothers at all levels of our organisation will ultimately result in better decisions, a better culture and a deeper understanding of our customers' needs," he added. 

UK-based Vodafone employs around 100,000 people in 30 operating companies across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe - including Ireland - and the US. 

It said the new policy would be in place by the end of this year.

Vodafone said that other than the United Nations, very few global organisations - and even fewer multi-national corporations - offered minimum maternity policies of the kind it was announcing. 

The group already offers a greater number of weeks' full pay to women on maternity leave in the UK and this will not be affected as the new policy offers a minimum rather than standardising terms across the world. 

Employees in Britain will however gain from the 30-hour week on full pay for the six months after returning to work, an idea taken from Italy.