Maternity Leave – Debate – EWL Proposals

Reconciliation of private and professional life – Should maternity leave pay the price of the failure to engage men in their share of care?

The recent proposal of the European Commission (October 2008) to increase the minimum length of maternity leave and to extend the mandatory period, currently at two weeks, to six weeks, has sparked debate among feminists and others as to whether women should be singled out in this way as this form of leave only relates to women.  The main problem is that the maternity leave proposal is just one of three proposals currently on the table part of the European ‘package’ of measures to reconcile private and professional life but those proposals are being dealt with in different ways. Two of these proposals, namely amendments to the 1992 Maternity Leave Directive and repeal of the 1986 Directive on Self Employed workers and their Assisting Spouses are both being discussed by the Council and European Parliament (Women’s Rights Committee) as part of a co-decision procedure. The third proposal, amending the 1996 Parental Leave Directive is being discussed by the Social Partners who are invited to make proposals in the form of a Social Partners Framework Agreement. It is without a doubt that it is this third proposal that holds the key to shifting the traditional division of (paid and unpaid) work between women and men in which women’s over representation in caring for family members has led to obstacles and discrimination in other areas of life (employment, decision-making.) Another problem is that the Social Partners’ discussions are not open to other actors and therefore influencing this process is difficult with the result that the other two proposals, and particularly the one on maternity leave is considered to be the opportunity for changing the unequal division of paid and unpaid work in which women and men are far from being equal.  Should maternity leave pay the price for the failure to engage men in their share of care?

The European Women’s Lobby believes that women must not pay this price. Women’s increasing participation in the labour market must not occult the reality of many women’s lives; any attempt to undermine women’s right to an improvement in maternity provisions would reinforce the already prevailing image of a labour market organised around a the male life-cycle, disregarding the role of women as workers and the fact that the structure of the labour market must take into account the reality, aspirations and needs of both women and men. The EWL is proposing amendments to the maternity leave proposal which includes 24 weeks fully paid leave of which the six mandatory weeks are not subjected to any previous work record; fully paid additional leave in exceptional circumstances relating to the health of the mother and/or child and a one-year protection period for women returning to work.

In relation to self employed women and assisting partners, EWL amendments include six week mandatory (maternity) leave and the obligation of Member States to provide social security coverage to assisting spouses (changing this to assisting “partners”).

Proposals for one-month fully paid paternity leave has been included into the proposal for parental leave as well as the sharing of parental leave amongst partners by guaranteeing non transferable periods of leave and that leave for the care of children and/or family members is fully paid to ensure that men take their share of care. Information: Collins@womenlobby.org