Parliament backs 20-week maternity leave

Estela and baby for maternity leave vote small.jpg

Members of the European Parliament have taken a strong stand in favour of giving women workers the right to take 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay. The European Commission now has to find a compromise that will also be acceptable to the member states.

At their plenary session in Strasbourg yesterday (20 October), MEPs voted by a large majority to endorse proposals that, if agreed and implemented by the member states, would significantly strengthen the rights of working women throughout the EU.

"This is a great day for new parents and good news for our economic future in Europe," said Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela, who drafted the assembly's position on the legislative proposal.

According to the Parliament, a female employee should be entitled to take at least 20 weeks maternity leave when she has a baby, and this should be a minimum standard across all 27 member states.

Under existing EU legislation, which has been in force since 1992, the minimum level of maternity leave is 14 weeks. Many EU countries already have more generous rules on maternity leave, although in some countries – notably Sweden – parental leave may be shared between the mother and the father.

In October 2008, the European Commission presented its proposals for increasing the minimum level of maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with standards developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Longer maternity leave is seen as a way of encouraging women to breastfeed their babies, as recommened by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Parliament has taken more than two years to finalise its position on the revision of the 1992 directive, but yesterday the text was formally adopted with 390 MEPs voting in favour and 192 against.

Concern over financial costs

The question of how much money women should receive while they are on maternity leave has emerged as the most controversial issue – not just in the Parliament, but also among governments, employers and other stakeholders.

The Commission had proposed that the minimum level of maternity pay should be based on the level of statutory sick pay in each member state. However, the Parliament is calling for women to be continue receiving 100% of their regular salary during the whole time that they are on maternity leave, with a limited exemption for countries that operate a system of shared parental leave.

For the majority of MEPs who supported the Estrela report, the question of financial compensation during maternity leave is a matter of principle which relates to the rights of women and families, and the wish to encourage rather than punish parenthood.

Defending her report in Strasbourg, Estrela insisted that "100% payment is fair because families should not be penalised financially for having children. They should be able to have as many children as they want, which are children that Europe needs in order to face up to the demographic challenge".

However, a number of national governments, in particular those of Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as business and employers' organisations, are strongly opposed to the suggestion that women should continue to receive full pay while they are on maternity leave.

Opponents claim that allowing women to take 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay would be prohibitively expensive, both for employers facing difficult economic conditions and for governments seeking ways to restrain public spending. They point to impact assessments which show that member states would be faced with massive extra costs amounting to many billions of euros.

Fathers' paternity leave

Meanwhile, fathers have not been forgotten. A majority of MEPs agreed that fathers should be entitled to take two weeks of paternity leave following the birth of a new child, while continuing to receive 100% of their usual salary.

But some opponents made the point that paternity leave should not come under the scope of the legislation, which is intended to protect the health and safety of pregnant women.

Next stop: Council of Ministers

Now that the Parliament has finally adopted its position on the Commission's proposals, the next step will be for the member states to discuss all the issues concerned in the Council of Ministers.

In the current political and economic climate, national governments will be reluctant to accept new legislation that would significantly increase financial costs for employers in the public and private sectors, or put extra pressure on public budgets and social protection systems.

Meanwhile, the European Commission now faces the difficult task of helping the Council and the Parliament to find a compromise that both institutions will be able to accept.

Responding to the outcome of the vote in Strasbourg, Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission, described the Parliament's position as "ambitious" and warned that it "certainly will not make it easy to find a balanced compromise with the Council in the near future".

"If we want to move towards gender equality in the work place, we must find the right balance between concrete rights for mothers and the current economic realities facing businesses in the EU," declared Reding.

"The Commission stands ready to act as an honest broker to help the Council and the European Parliament achieve an agreement on this important directive."

"This is an incredibly important victory for parents, both mothers and fathers, as it will for the first time shift the costs of maternity from individual women to society as a whole," said Brigitte Triems, president of the European Women's Lobby.

"It is also a sign that our representatives in the European Parliament take progress towards equality between women and men and the future of our societies seriously," she said, adding that the Paliament had shown its readiness to take political decisions which may be unpopular in certain quarters but which in effect favour long-term gains in equality between women and men and socio-economic sustainability.

According to UK Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans (Greens/European Free Alliance), the Parliament, by supporting decent rules, has voted to help overcome the barriers to women having children and continuing to work. "This in itself is an investment in our future and will help to invigorate the economy at a time when we need it most," she said. 

"The Parliament also voted to ban the dismissal of pregnant workers. Past figures show that over 1,000 women in Wales have taken legal action against their employers every year, claiming they were sacked because of pregnancy. The former Equal Opportunities Commission helpline in Wales was receiving more enquiries about pregnancy discrimination than any other, accounting for 40% of the total," she stressed.

Some MEPs fear the bill could harm employment opportunities for women. 

"It goes too far," said British liberal MEP Elizabeth Lynne. "We mustn't ruin systems that are functioning. Leave on full pay will stop many young women from finding a job."

Conservative French MEP Pascale Gruny said the vote was "false good news that will wind up being a brake on employing women across Europe".

"The proposal is expensive and burdensome [...] and will increase the complexity of hiring women," said the head of BusinessEurope, Philippe de Buck.

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).

In February, when the Womens' Rights Committee backed a report by Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela to increase minimum compulsory EU maternity leave to 20 weeks, there was a feeling of déjà vu.

In June 2009, a coalition of centre-right and liberal MEPs had rejected Estrela's plans in a June vote in Strasbourg.

Yesterday's vote ends a long parliamentary battle which has aroused strong emotional and political arguments among MEPs.

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