Tackling women’s underrepresentation in the labour market and promoting equality between men and women are among the aims of the European Commission’s Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers. MEP Georgi Pirinski argues that the benefits of the new legal proposal include boosting business competitiveness and higher earnings and career progression for employees.
The stated objective of the proposal by the European Commission for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers of 26 April 2017 is to address women’s under-representation in the labour market and to promote equality between men and women in it. It is also designed to allow parents with children or workers with dependent relatives to balance their caring and their professional responsibilities in a better way. The gender employment gap in 2015 was estimated to be 18.1% for full-time equivalent employment, costing society 370 billion euros per year, equivalent to a full 2.8% of EU GDP!
The legislative part of the proposal introduces paternity leave with fathers/second parents able to take at least 10 working days off around the time of child birth with at least sick pay level compensation. It also strengthens parental leave, makes parental leave non-transferable between parents, increases compensation, makes it more flexible as to the time period and extends the right to flexible working hours arrangements to parents and carers. These are complemented by a set of non-legislative measures, altogether representing a direct response to the 9th of 20 calls contained in the Commission’s Recommendation on the European Pillar of Social Rights.
The gender employment gap in 2015 was estimated to be 18.1% for full-time equivalent employment, costing society 370 billion euros per year, equivalent to a full 2.8% of EU GDP!
Two stage consultation with the social partners
In order to prepare the proposal, between November 2015 and September 2016 the Commission undertook a two stage consultation with the EU social partners, who, while agreeing with the objective of improving women’s employment, broadly diverged on the issue of whether new legislative action was needed. This precluded them from entering into direct negotiations. While the trade unions supported legislation to improve transition into work, protect employees against dismissal and enhanced parental and carer rights, employers’ organisations objected to such legislation, claiming that additional costs would affect competitiveness, employment and SMEs and preferred non-legislative measures such as good practices, awareness raising and policy guidance.
The Commission’s proposal of 26 April was strongly welcomed both by European socialists and by NGOs that had been actively campaigning for vigorous work-balance action at EU level. Socialists highlighted that the work-life balance package is the most ambitious piece of social legislation that the Commission has proposed in years and that it could become a game changer, while NGOs welcomed the package as a “first important step in the right direction” and the beginning of a process to achieve reconciliation between the economy and society.
Opposition from BusinessEurope
However, BusinessEurope came out against the introduction of new forms of leave and rights to leave at EU level, claiming that the proposed arrangements, far from solving the problem of underrepresentation of women in the labour market, will in fact have the reverse effect of keeping women out of the workplace while encouraging more men to take up leave. They argued that it would be unfair to finance such a badly targeted policy at the cost of business competitiveness.
NGOs that had been actively campaigning for vigorous work-balance action at EU level. Socialists highlighted that the work-life balance package is the most ambitious piece of social legislation that the Commission has proposed in years.
Paragraph 45 of the European Parliament Resolution entitled ‘Creating labour market conditions favourable for work-life balance’ of 13 September 2016, “points out that work-life balance must be based on workers’ rights and security on the labour market, and on the right to take time off without it being curtailed by increased mobility and flexibility requirements …”
The benefits of the work-life balance proposals
Work–life balance has become a vital issue due to at least three major societal transformations – the feminisation of the labour force, changing attitudes and norms regarding the gender division of labour, the tendency towards greater work intensity and the growing incidence of atypical working hours triggered by technological change.
Finally, impact assessments have demonstrated that the package will benefit parents and carers with higher earnings plus career progression and companies with a broader and more motivated labour force, while the increase in female employment will help address demographic ageing and also contribute to Member States’ financial stability.
Hence, one cannot but come away with the sense that business objections to the package are, unfortunately, totally oblivious to the multiple positive effects, including in relation to competitiveness at company level, that would result from full and timely implementation of the ambitious work-life balance package put forward by the Commission.
It therefore is all the more imperative to mobilise full support for its implementation, considering that it actually represents an important first step in adequately addressing the daunting challenges of reconciling purely economic efficiencies with the overarching priorities of societies undergoing fundamental transformation.