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On Wednesday 26th of April 2017 in addition to proposing the European Pillar of Social Rights, the European Commission also put forward several legislative and non-legislative initiatives related to work-life balance, access to social protection and working time. President Junker in his first State of the European Union speech in September 2015 set out his view for a European Pillar of Social Rights. In 2016 the Commission then presented the first outline of the Pillar of Social Rights and launched a public consultation.

After the withdrawal of the Commission’s proposal of 2008 to amend the Maternity Leave Directive, the European Commission in 2016 then carried out consultations with trade unions and social organizations such as Eurocadres and European Trade Union Confederation, who have been supportive of the proposals. However, business respondents such as Eurocommerce, UEAPME, and BusinessEurope have been much more reluctant.

The gender employment gap in Europe

Since the withdrawal of the Commission proposal to amend the Maternity Leave Directive, this is the first concrete action undertaken by the European Commission. The proposal for a Directive of The European Parliament and of The Council on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers and Repealing Council Directive 2010/18 is an essential part of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The rationale behind the directive is that the employment rate of women is still significantly lower than men (64.3% vs. 75.9%). While 71.2% of men work full-time only approximately 50% of women do so. What is more, the gender employment gap is even higher for parents and individuals with caring responsibilities, who are mainly women. It is of concern that women with a child under 6 years of age have 9% lower employment rate than women without children. After having children, the absence of work-life balance provisions has pushed numerous workers (mostly women) to look for part-time work arrangements or, at worst, to leave the labour market altogether. The persistence of gender employment gaps costs the EU approximately 370 billion Euros per year.

Furthermore, the gender pension gap that is around 40% is a direct consequence of the gender employment gap. The European Commission has identified an inadequate work-life balance policy as the primary cause of this problem. Finally, 3.3 million European citizens aged 15 to 34 had to give up full-time work due to lack of care services for their children or other relatives. This Directive aims at introducing fundamental changes regarding paternity leave, parental leave, carers’ leave, flexible working arrangements for parents and carers, and protection against dismissal and unfavourable treatment.

Main goals of the Directive

The main goals of the Directive are the following:

  • Paternity Leave: All working fathers will be able to take at least 10 working days of paternity leave around the time of birth of the child. Leave will be compensated at least at the level of sick pay. Currently, there is no minimum standard for paternity leave at EU level.
  • Parental Leave: Four months of parental leave per parent (non-transferable) that can be taken in flexible form (full-time or part-time) until the child is 12. Parental leave will be compensated at least at the level of sick pay. The current EU law permits parental leave until the child is 8 and does not grant any allowance.
  • Carers’ Leave: All workers will have the right to 5 days of carers’ leave per year to take care of seriously ill or dependent relatives. These days will be compensated at least at the level of sick pay. As of today, there are no minimum standards for carers at EU-level. It is estimated that one-fifth of women does not work because of caring responsibilities, this is the case for less than 2% of men.
  • Flexible Working Arrangements: Both women and men with a child under 12 and carers will be able to request for reduced and flexible working hours. At present, only parents whose parental leave is over have the right to ask for it.

It is expected that the Directive will be beneficial for citizens, business, member states, and the overall economy. It is aimed at increasing employment rate and earnings of women; reducing the gender pay and pension gaps, allowing fathers to be more active in family life; facilitating looking after disabled, ill, and elderly relatives. Businesses will benefit from more women in the labour market, which would prevent skills shortages. More motivated and less absent workers will improve overall productivity. Public finances of Member States will be more sustainable as tax income will increase and unemployment will shrink. Lastly, the European competitiveness will be boosted by the increase of the available talent pool and human capital will be used to its fullest.

The stakeholders’ opinions

However, the proposal has also attracted some significant criticism from certain stakeholders. Emma Marcegaglia, former president of Confindustria and current president of BusinessEurope, commented that this directive puts too many obligations on employers. Marcegaglia expresses worries that this “ill-conceived” legislation can undermine job creation and competitiveness. She warns that many Member States do not have sufficient financial means to provide a sick level pay to individuals on parental leave.

On the contrary, COFACE Families Europe supports the proposal of the Commission, as the “first-ever comprehensive package of legislative and non-legislative measures to promote the work-life balance of families”. They consider that it would modernize the current legal framework and adjust it to the reality, as now in Europe most families belong to the dual earner model. COFACE also adds that the Directive has to be approved “without being watered down or emptied of its much needed content by European Parliament and the Council of the EU”.

The Directive is a certainly a necessary step in reaching gender equality in Europe. However, it will require a shift in awareness towards accepting that the dominant family model is now that of dual earners. The burden of unpaid household and care work that is primarily carried out by women needs to be distributed.

With the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Commission has shown that social priorities can still be at the heart of Europe. The role of the European Union is limited in this context, as welfare and social policy fall under the Member States sole competence. However, the European Union, as stated in Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), has both supporting and complementing competences in this area.

The Maternity Leave Directive was withdrawn because there was no agreement within the Council. This new Directive sets an even higher aim, and a long and extremely difficult political battle is in front of us.