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EU plans to move closer to the Swedish model for parental leave

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Use it or lose it
Publication Date: 
23 Nov 2017
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When Johan Braven had his first child he took nine months of leave. For the second he took ten months, the same amount as his wife. “I was afraid of not having the bond if I didn’t spend time at home with the children too,” says Mr Braven. The first country in the world to allow couples to split parental leave (in 1974), Sweden offers each couple 480 days between them for each child. During the first 390 of those days, they are paid at close to 80% of their previous salary—by taxpayers. Ninety of those 480 days are reserved for each parent. The time can be taken up until the child is eight.

Parents in the rest of Europe are far less generously treated. In most countries parental leave, other than time taken by either parent as maternity or paternity leave immediately before (in the case of women) and after the birth of a child, is unpaid, and there is a lot less of it; currently 18 weeks per parent in Britain, for instance.

The European Commission now wants to bring aspects of the Swedish model to the rest of Europe. Negotiations began at the end of September on a new work-life balance directive, much of which is aimed at overhauling parental leave, the latest in a series of attempts it has made to update the laws. Under the new directive the length of leave available to parents—currently set by EU rules at a minimum of four months per child—would not change, but it would have to be paid at least at the same rate as a country’s statutory sick pay (EU rules currently mandate only unpaid leave, which many people choose not to take). These four months would be non-transferable, forcing men to use their parental leave or lose it. They would also be available to be used at any time up until the child turns 12. Additionally, the directive plans to introduce a minimum ten-day paternity leave to be used immediately following birth.

One aim of the changes is to help women back to work after having children by making sure they can get time off when they need it. Across all member states the female employment rate is 12 percentage points lower than for men: in Greece just 48% of women are in work, compared with 67% of men. Another aim is to close the pay gap. On average this is 16%, but in some countries, such as Estonia, it is as high as 27%. Moreover, although 32% of working women in the EU work part-time, only 8% of men do. The difference is greatest for those with children.

For some, though, the bill does not go far enough. Montserrat Mir Roca, of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), says the group welcomes the directive, but will “keep pushing”. “Getting pregnant right now in Europe carries the risk of ending up in a lesser-paid job,” says Barbara Helfferich, an ETUC adviser. Legally women cannot be dismissed for taking leave but in reality they come back and “three weeks later they’re sacked or moved to something else.”

For business groups in Brussels, however, the directive is a large step too far. “We already have a good level of parental leave in Europe,” says Markus Beyrer, director-general of Business Europe. “Now is not the moment to add costs and burden to employers.” The directive will not only deter hiring but encourage parents, particularly women, to “keep out of the labour market”, driving up the pay gap, says Mr Beyrer: “The money would be better spent improving child-care facilities.” According to Mr Beyrer, member states will also take umbrage with the EU meddling so deeply in social policy, especially those with high levels of sick pay like France. Such countries may be forced to reduce sick pay.

At a national level, a number of reforms to parental leave are under way. In Italy the government launched a campaign this year to encourage fathers to use their entitlement, and in Austria a new law came into force in March which rewards parents for sharing leave equally.

Despite being the model for the commission’s proposed reform, the Swedish system itself is under review. “Everything is open to change,” says Victor Harju, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. The government fears, correctly, that the rules have made it hard for female migrants to find jobs, since companies know they can retroactively claim parental leave for all their existing children.

Eastern European countries present a particular problem, says Mary Collins of the Brussels-based European Women’s Lobby, an umbrella group. This is not only because maternity leave tends to be much longer, with women in Poland, for example, taking up to four years off (the last three of them largely unpaid), but also because people are a lot “more traditional” about gender roles. Although women can choose to share part of the first year with their partners, “most do not,” says Kasia Boruta from Wroclaw, Poland. Her husband took just two weeks off, partly because he was on the verge of getting a promotion, but also because “being at home also means doing the housework,” says Mrs Boruta. “This is a woman’s role.”

With the directive yet to pass through either the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers, its opponents still have plenty of time to tone down some of the more costly and intrusive proposals. The EU, says Mr Beyrer, should not “decree transformation overnight”.

-reprinted from The Economist

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Entered Date: 
29 Nov 2017
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