Back in April, the European Commission came up with proposals to improve people’s work-life balance through new or higher minimum standards for parental, paternity and carers’ leave. Montserrat Mir, European Trade Union Confederation Confederal Secretary, gives her view of the proposals and how work-life balance should be improved in the EU without hampering the economy.

 

The European Commission’s plans to make it easier for workers to combine employment with home and caring responsibilities are long overdue. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) supports the work-life balance package even though we would have liked to see an even more ambitious approach with stronger legal protection for women on maternity leave.

Change is necessary for many reasons, both social and economic. To guarantee Europe’s prosperity, 75% of men and women should be in employment by 2020, according to the Commission. But there is still a long way to go. In Greece, Italy and Malta, female employment hovers around 50%, for example, and remains more than 11 percentage points lower across the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions estimates that women’s inactivity costs the EU some €370 billion a year, or 2.8% of GDP.

Immigration helps to boost the working age population, but enabling people to work and care for their families at the same time is vital for a sustainable society.

Europe has a declining birth rate and growing proportion of older people. Yet many Europeans who would like to have children are prevented by economic factors such as lack of affordable childcare or because they need to provide support for their ageing parents. Immigration helps to boost the working age population, but enabling people to work and care for their families at the same time is vital for a sustainable society.

Since the crisis, EU economic and austerity policies have undermined the welfare of workers and their families in many countries, generating disillusionment and sometimes dangerously extremist reactions. The idea of a European Pillar of Social Rights, including work-life balance measures, moves back in the direction of a Union that promotes social progress and the interests of citizens. This could be crucial to the EU’s future.

While policy guidance and sharing best practice is useful, especially in fields where the EU has limited competence, it seems to me that legislation is vital to achieve concrete results and raise standards for workers across Europe. The package includes just one legislative proposal: a draft Directive containing innovative and positive features. First of these is 10 days paternity leave paid at the same rate as sick leave. Four months paid parental leave would be available until a child is 12 years old. And all workers would have the right to request five days paid carer’s leave per year and flexible working arrangements.

In my view, the Directive should cover everyone, including self-employed and atypical workers, and companies of all sizes.

Two elements are key: parental leave would not be transferable between parents and, coupled with the new paternity leave, this would help shift the burden of childcare away from women, towards a shared responsibility. Secondly, payment is vital: without it, leave becomes an expensive luxury. Together, these measures would enable more women to work, combat segregation in the labour market and the gender pay gap, and reduce inequalities between women and men.

It is disappointing to see that the Commission has dropped its plans to strengthen maternity protection – blocked by the Council for almost 10 years. Our research shows increasing numbers of women being sacked due to pregnancy: a direct result of growing precariousness in the labour market, which leaves women most vulnerable. I would like to see the Commission review this issue in two years’ time. In my view, the Directive should cover everyone, including self-employed and atypical workers, and companies of all sizes.

Better work-life balance would improve parents’ access to the labour market. Furthermore,

BusinessEurope’s negative response to these proposals and its refusal to negotiate with the ETUC is regrettable. Its claim that the Directive would encourage people not to work is unsubstantiated. On the contrary, better work-life balance would improve parents’ access to the labour market. Furthermore, the Commission’s own impact assessment counters BusinessEurope’s claim of “far-reaching costs for employers” and economies, predicting a €840 billion boost for EU GDP and 1.6 million more people in employment by 2050. Work-life balance represents a long-term investment in Europe’s future.

Employers should have no veto over social progress and, while I recognise that some Member States also have specific concerns about the proposals on the table, I would urge the Commission to push ahead. Now is the time for the EU to act. These measures would bring real, visible benefits to people’s lives. Some EU Member States already have good parental provisions, but for others, introducing 10 days paternity leave, for example, would be a revolution, potentially changing attitudes across society as well as creating a more level playing field for businesses. Adopting these measures would be a clear and much-needed signal that now is the time for social Europe, offering workers the hope of a better future.

 

photo: shutterstock.com/Andrey_Popov