Maternity leave battle set to continue after EU vote

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The European Parliament is pushing hard to bring in longer EU minimum standards for maternity leave. But MEPs are likely to face stiff resistance from some EU member states, particularly the UK.

There was a feeling of déjà vu in the Parliament yesterday (23 February) as the Womens' Rights Committee backed a report by Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela to increase minimum compulsory EU maternity leave to 20 weeks.

In June last year, a coalition of centre-right and liberal MEPs had already rejected Estrela's plans in a June vote in Strasbourg.

Estrela does not believe history will repeat itself, however, and claimed she was "confident" Parliament would back her plans this time around.

Responding to a question from EURACTIV following yesterday's vote, she argued that last year's rejection was for political reasons, as centre-right MEPs did not want to touch upon this sensitive issue ahead of June's European elections.

"A new parliament means a new situation," she said, adding that "we are legislating for the future" with this progressive proposal.

Cost too high, says UK

However, even if a majority of MEPs endorse the report, it seems likely that further political battles are inevitable.

The UK, for example, is worried about the costs involved in this latest plan, and would likely block it when it reaches ministerial level.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) warned that the proposed changes would be costly during an economic downturn.

BCC Director of Policy Adam Marshall told the Associated Press that "the Pregnant Workers Directive should be about setting minimum EU standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers – not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems".

"This vote introduces complexity and uncertainty, which are totally unnecessary, as the UK and other EU countries already have well-developed national maternity pay systems," he said, urging the European Parliament and EU national ministers to "overturn these costly amendments".

"Companies need to be given the space to deliver growth and jobs – without being hamstrung by new and costly maternity rules," he argued.

Report 'goes too far', says Commission

A European Commission source told EURACTIV that "we feel this report is going a bit too far," both in terms of the 20-week minimum and the paternity leave clause.

However, Estrela hit back by saying that she had received no response from the Commission when she repeatedly asked what decisions would be made regarding paternity leave.

"19 EU countries already have paternity leave legislation," she told EURACTIV, adding that "we believe we should enshrine in EU law what most member states already have".

"It's a question of harmonisation," she concluded.

In a May 2009 report, which amended the Commission's plan, Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela recommended upping the minimum compulsory leave to 20 weeks with six weeks full pay.

Estrela's report also favoured the introduction of two weeks minimum paternity leave, a measure opposed by the Commission and a number of member states. Indeed, the proposal was also opposed by centre-right MEPs, who blocked it in June 2009.

The Estrela report proposes the following changes:

  • That minimum maternity leave in the EU be extended from 14 to 20 weeks, six weeks of which would be taken immediately after childbirth.
  • These maternity leave rules also apply to domestic workers and self-employed workers.
  • Workers on maternity leave must be paid their full salary, which must be 100% of their last monthly salary or their average monthly salary.
  • Member states must give fathers the right to fully paid paternity leave of at least two weeks within the period of maternity leave.
  • This legislation on maternity and paternity leave should also apply to parents who adopt a child of less than 12 months old.
  • Female workers cannot be fired from the beginning of a pregnancy to at least six months following the end of the maternity leave.
  • After maternity leave, women must be entitled to return to their jobs or to "equivalent posts", i.e. a position with the same pay, professional category and duties as before.

Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, a French MEP from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest in Parliament, welcomed the "good intention" behind the Estrela report.

But the vice-president of the Parliament's women rights committee also stressed that "it is indispensable to realise that, in a period of economic crisis, this will represent a very heavy additional burden on companies." Besides, she warned that longer maternity leave "should not give additional reasons for making recruitment of young women more difficult".

Rather than longer maternity leave, she said additional measures should be adopted to reconcile work and family life, including more daycare facilities and greater flexibility of working hours. "There should also be accompanying measures after the leave period to facilitate the return to work," Morin-Chartier said.

In a statement, the Greens group in Parliament said they had voted in favour of the Estrela report and supported the minimum threshold of 20 weeks maternity leave, "with additional paternity leave of (also at full pay) of at least two weeks".

"Support for 20 weeks maternity leave at full pay represents a perfectly feasible improvement on the current EU average of 18 weeks, and a positive step towards the 24 weeks that is recommended by the WHO and others on health grounds," commented Dutch Green MEP Marije Cornelissen.

"It would be false economy to refuse adequate investment in parental leave. Countries that provide better parental leave also see new parents take less sick leave and holidays," she said.

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 (though the Commission would not be able to enforce this).

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 (EURACTIV 31/07/09).

  • 11 March 2010: Vote on Estrela report in Parliament plenary session.

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