Parental leave systems differ from country to country, and they do not always fit into classifications suitable for international comparison. This being said there are three main types of parental leave:
• Maternity leave (also known as pregnancy leave) employment-protected leave of absence that employed women receive during pregnancy, after giving birth, or adoption in some countries. The ILO convention on maternity leave sets a standard leave to be at least 14 weeks.
• Paternity leave: employment-protected leave of absence for working fathers at or in the first few months after the birth of his child. This category of leave is not stipulated by any international convention. In general, periods of paternity leave are much shorter than for maternity leave.
• Parental leave: it is often an add-on to maternity and paternity leave periods, and most often it follows the period of maternity leave.
The maternity leave and maternity allowance in EU countries
The mandatory maternity leave varies across EU countries. In the UK, Sweden, Slovenia, Hungary, and Denmark it is 2 weeks; in Latvia and Finland 4 weeks; in Bulgaria, Ireland, Romania, Portugal, Spain, and Slovakia 6 weeks; in France 8 weeks; in Belgium 10 weeks; in Poland, Malta, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Croatia 14 weeks; in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Austria 16-17 weeks, and 21 weeks in Italy. The Italian law prohibits assigning women to work during this period.
Maternity allowance depends on the previous employment or in some cases on social security contributions, and it is typically paid by the public health insurance funds. In many member states, it is 100% of the salary. In the UK, the Netherlands, Greece, Finland, and Denmark it is paid by employers who subsequently receive reimbursement from the state funds. In Italy, the allowance is partially reimbursed by the employer, and also through public health insurance or private funds of professional associations. However, there are different criteria for qualifying to receive the allowance.
In the majority of member states, women must have worked and paid social security contributions for a certain period to become eligible for the maternity allowance. To illustrate, in France, a woman must have contributed to the social security at least ten months and must have worked a minimum of 150 hours in the three months before the maternity leave. However, in Finland, the eligibility does not depend on employment, but on the coverage by the Finish or any other EU member state’s social security for a minimum 180 days before the delivery date. Also, countries such as Italy do not have a provision related to the duration of employment before the leave.
Furthermore, in the majority of member states, the allowance is 100% of the previous salary during the whole maternity leave, or its rate is 80-90%. The exceptions are Slovakia (65%), Hungary (70%), Cyprus (72%), and the Czech Republic (70%). It must be noted that the percentage decreases after some time in certain cases. Mothers in Austria, Spain, France, and Germany receive full salaries for a limited time of 14 weeks, whereas in Bulgaria they receive 90% of the previous wage for 410 days.
Impact of parental leave on society and economy
Parental leave is critical for the economy because both men and women have higher chances to remain in the workforce in case they become parents when having the opportunity to take it. It also reduces unemployment, absenteeism due to family responsibilities and turnover among the working force, and increase overall productivity and participation of women to the labour market. Furthermore parental leave saves to companies time and money that would be spent in a search for a replacement and training of new employees. Finally, the parental leave reduces childcare costs. On the other hand, it must be noted that extended maternity leave may bear the risk of endangering mother’s career prospects and thus it is crucial to prolong not only paternal leave but also paternity leave so that men can finally share responsibilities.
Nevertheless, when discussing parental leaves, not only economic factors should be taken into account, but also other elements of paramount importance, such as quality of life, health… It must be underlined that Europe has for example the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Hence, the longer maternity leave would in turn increase breastfeeding rates, and in the long run reduce health care costs.
The policy context in the European Union
The Maternity Leave Directive (92/85/EEC) became effective in 1992. Its aim was to introduce measures that would improve health and safety of pregnant women and mothers who recently gave birth or were breastfeeding. It stipulated a minimum of 14 consecutive weeks of leave, including two mandatory weeks before or following the delivery.
In 2008 the Commission amended the directive with a proposal (2008/0193/COD) to extend the leave to 18 weeks. This proposal was linked with the EU commitment to reaching an employment rate for women to 75% by 2020. It also included a prohibition of dismissal during maternity leave (except in particular circumstances), the right of the woman to return to the employment position with the identical conditions she held before the leave and the right to benefit from the improvement in working conditions that occurred during the leave. The European Parliament adopted its position on the proposal in 2010. The European Parliament proposed to extend the length of maternity leave to 20 weeks, to add a minimum of two weeks of non-transferable paternity leave and to broaden the definition to include domestic workers as well. Finally, the Parliament proposed to specify that the wage replacement for a minimum 16 weeks should be equal to 100% of full salary.
Unfortunately the Council was not able to reach a common position and, subsequently, inter-xinstitutional negotiations on this important proposal have never started. As a result, the Commission warned in 2015 that it would cancel the proposal if the negotiations do not start within six months. Unfortunately, more than six months have already gone by and the Council is still procrastinating its decision.
It is an imperative for the European Union to protect pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers at work and to establish a framework that enables both parents to look after their babies. At the moment, 25% of member states do not have paternal leave. Moreover, in reality, actually, only 1% of fathers do take parental leaves.
The harmonization of parental leave policy in the EU is likely to be a long and complex process due to various traditions across the member states and because of the fact that social policy falls under competence of member states (Article 153 TFEU).
However it is crucial to restart the negotiations on the initiative that would replace the 2008 Commission’s proposal to revise the Maternity Leave Directive, and to ensure that this proposal is approved as soon as possible. This would represent a first vital step in modernizing the current EU legal and policy framework and adapt it to today’s labour market need to allow both women and men with children or workers with dependent relatives to better balance caring and professional responsibilities.
European Parliament (2016, May), Parental Leave Directive: Towards a revision?
European Parliament. (2015, February), Maternity and paternity leave in the EU
European Parliament (2015, February),Maternity, paternity and parental leave: Data related to duration and compensation rates in the European Union
Jalba, A. (2016, September 13), Is it time to extend maternity leave across Europe?
European Commission (2015, May), Roadmap: New start to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families
OECD – Social Policy Division – Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (2016, February), Key characteristics of parental leave systems
European Foundation for Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2015), Maternity leave provisions in the EU Member States: Duration and allowances