The European Commission could kill a stalled EU directive on maternity leave under the pretext of “good legislative management”, sending alarm bells ringing among women’s rights groups.
The draft maternity leave directive, adopted in first reading by the European Parliament in 2010, has been stalled in the EU Council of Ministers for almost four years now.
The aim of the draft directive is to strengthen women’s rights by ensuring 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave across the European Union, and make sure women are protected upon their return to work.
Too many women are still being “sanctioned” by their employers for giving birth, figures show. “Equality bodies across Europe are receiving more and more complaints about it,” explained Mary Collins, a policy officer at the European Women’s Lobby.
EU countries were supposed to discuss the proposal. But they are not bound by a deadline, allowing them to brush the issue under the carpet.
“Good legislative management”
The European Commission seems to have given up the fight and now wants to kill the draft under its REFIT programme aimed at simplifying EU law.
In a communication dated 18 June, the EU executive wrote, “The Commission considers it good legislative management to withdraw proposals that do not advance in the legislative process […]. These include proposals on […] pregnant workers […].”
The sentence has angered the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), which raised the alarm. “The threat to remove the Maternity Leave Directive from the legislative process is serious and undermines the democratic process of the European Parliament’s adopted position. This negates Europe’s rhetoric on its commitment to gender equality and effective work-life balance for women and men in Europe,” the EWL’s secretary general, Joanna Maycock was quoted saying.
Juncker to the rescue?
In a letter to the newly designated EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EWL writes, “The decision to withdraw this Directive is scandalous as potential and pregnant women workers are being taken hostage but so too are men as the proposed directive also includes provisions on paternity leave.”
The move is seen by the EWL as another attempt to dismantle women’s rights and gender equality in the EU institutions. “Rising conservative and religious forces and far right political actors are impacting negatively on women’s rights and are calling into question the very notion of rights – especially sexual and reproductive rights – that were hard fought for by previous generations of women and men,” the letter reads.
The economic crisis and austerity measures have been “used as an excuse” to dismantle gender equality across all member states, argues the EWL’s Mary Collins, citing the example of Slovenia, where women used to enjoy 100% of their salary while on maternity leave.
This amount has been reduced “by 90% or maybe more” over the last years, she said.
“This is really when the pay gap starts to kick in. There are many different factors but this is one moment in women’s life when the pay gap begins. The fact that women don’t earn their full salary, and they’re actually being sanctioned for taking time to give birth, recuperate and breastfeed if they wish.”
The so-called maternity leave directive foresees a 20 weeks fully paid maternity leave, protects women from losing their job after they leave, extends these rights to domestic workers and adoptive mothers and includes a two-week fully paid paternity leave.
In an emailed response to EurActiv, Commission’s spokesman Joshua Salsby said that the draft directive “has not been withdrawn yet”. “The European Commission remains committed to help EU citizens, women and men, to better combine work and family life. Naming the proposal on maternity leave as a candidate for withdrawal under the 2014 REFIT exercise does not change that. However this proposal has not been withdrawn yet.”
The European Commission reacted by saying:
"The European Commission remains committed to help EU citizens, women and men, to better combine work and family life. Naming the proposal on maternity leave as a candidate for withdrawal under the 2014 REFIT exercise does not change that. However this proposal has not been withdrawn yet.
Since 2008, the European Commission has sought to make progress on the proposal for maternity leave and act as an honest broker between the European Parliament and the Council to find a compromise solution - but despite these efforts, no new negotiations have taken place in two years. One of the intentions of the REFIT exercise is to withdraw proposals that do not advance in the legislative process, in order to allow for a fresh start. The Commission believes that including this file on the list of withdrawals would open a door for a new beginning, allowing for a more modern directive which would be of greater benefit to EU citizens."
Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women's Lobby (EWL) said: "This is a classic example of the backlash against women’s rights and gender equality in Europe. It sends a very bad signal to women and men in Europe about how much the EU can do to support real people’s rights and lives."
Efforts to agree on minimum rules for paid maternity leave have triggered heated and divisive debates among EU member states.
On 3 October 2008 the European Commission proposed increasing compulsory maternity leave to 18 weeks, of which six would have to be taken immediately after childbirth. It also recommended that member states pay women their full salary during this leave period.
According to the Commission, this plan would give women "more flexibility over when to take the non-compulsory portion of their leave (before or after childbirth) and would thus no longer be obliged to take a specific portion of the leave before childbirth, as is presently the case in some member states".
The maternity leave debate is separate from that which concerns EU rules on parental leave - the Commission is currently drafting a directive on this issue too.