Government unveils draft family programme for 2007–2014
In March 2007, the Polish government published a draft family policy programme for 2007–2014. The programme includes measures to support parenthood, increase the birth rate and reverse the current unfavourable demographic trend. It also seeks to improve the quality of life and overall situation of Polish families. The draft programme was subjected to social consultation, after which the government submitted it to parliament for further debate at the end of April 2007.
On 8 March 2007, the Polish government unveiled its ‘Family policy project’ for social consultation, which concluded in late April 2007. During the conference held at the end of the consultation process, the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, who was the driving force behind the entire initiative, announced that a draft of a new legislative act regarding families will be ready by the end of June 2007.
Social and demographic context
After the fall of communism, family policy in Poland has been the responsibility of many different state agencies. While the office of Government Ombudsman for Women and Families was set up in 1991 with a portfolio which included coordination of state family policy, its practical operation was impeded by constant reorganisations and staff restructuring until at least 1995.
To date, two family policy programmes have been implemented in Poland, one in 1997 and another in 1999. Throughout the 1990s, the efforts of the Polish state in this area of work were addressed primarily to families with financial difficulties, and cash hand-outs remained the predominant form of assistance. Successive reforms have curtailed social aid for families both in terms of its share of gross domestic product (GDP) and of its real value. Compared with other EU countries, Polish spending on family-related benefits is relatively low at 0.9% of GDP – the current EU average stands at 2.1% of GDP. Family policy came to be determined largely by the exigencies of state budget savings on the one hand and addressing the most pressing needs on the other.
The structural weakness of the family support system in Poland is compounded by the consistently low fertility rate (1.23 children per woman, compared with an EU average of 1.51 children per women) and by the lowest level of economic activity in the EU – of all Poles aged 15 to 64 years, only 54% of them are in paid employment, compared with an EU average of 63% of people in this age group. A point to note in this context is the significantly low labour force participation rate among women, who account for 60.9% of the economically inactive population. Thus, changes to the social aid rules concerning families seem necessary to reverse unfavourable demographic trends and to improve the economic and social situation of families.
Principles and objectives of project
The government’s current family policy project mainly aims to ‘enable women to reconcile their family and professional duties, including gender equality, financial support for families, and development of a society friendly to children and families’. Many of the specific solutions suggested are designed to improve living conditions for Polish families, to facilitate childcare, and to make parenthood more attractive.
The underlying principles of the project include a need to tap into the flexicurity stream, which is recognised as a suitable response to social and cultural changes and to technological development. To succeed with the project, it will also be necessary to apply a number of solutions from the active social policy sphere. The government’s proposals have drawn on selected instruments from both these areas, yet the changes which are recommended fall short of a systemic proposal; instead, they touch on some key issues while entirely bypassing others.
The most important changes proposed in the project include those geared towards preventing discrimination of families in terms of the tax and pensions system. These include:
- tying the amount of tax-exempt annual earnings to the number of family members and gradually increasing the tax benefits for parents raising children. This is a priority task, especially since 67% of Poles cite the high expenses associated with supporting children as a major consideration against becoming parents, according to a Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum Badania Opini Społecznej, CBOS) survey. This proposal was widely accepted by participants of the social consultations, including the social partners;
- increasing the base amount for calculating pension and disability insurance contributions paid by the state for persons on maternity or parental leave to the average remuneration level. The social partners had mixed views on this point;
- classifying official pension contributions as joint marital assets. Under the current rules, such funds are regarded as the individual property of the working spouse, which is disadvantageous for persons who, rather than working, stay at home to care for their family;
- introducing incentives for employers to extend the employment contracts of employees returning to work after maternity or parental leave. The incentive currently under discussion, that of a three-year exemption from the mandatory Labour Fund contribution which the employer must submit for the given employee, appears much more viable than the other recent proposal of introducing legal guarantees of a specific employment duration. In relation to the latter proposal, it was feared that, if implemented, such a solution would tempt some employers to forego employing women altogether.
The following proposals were welcomed by the social partners and all other entities taking part in the consultation process:
- overhauling the prevailing images of maternity, particularly in the context of acceptance of current trends towards women who combine family duties with self-fulfilment in other areas of social and professional life;
- fostering a positive climate for parenthood. This includes, for example, benchmarking child-friendly employers, designating parking places for parents with small children, providing nappy-changing and baby-feeding facilities in public places, enacting a charter for large families through which their members would be entitled to discounts for the collective use of public transport;
- better availability of medical care for children and expectant mothers, more accessible and more flexible pre-school and day-care facilities – for instance, by enabling access to the in-house social benefits funds (mandated by Polish labour law for larger establishments) to finance the use of private childcare and medical facilities by employees;
- facilitating the reconciliation of work and family duties through the introduction of flexible working arrangements for expectant mothers and for mothers of small children, such as telework, job sparing, flexitime and task-based work schemes;
- giving persons paying voluntary social security contributions (mainly sole traders) the same entitlement to childcare benefits as salaried employees; at present, Polish law discriminates against mothers who pursue business activity in their own name as they are not entitled to maternity leave or to childcare subsidies, even though they must contribute to the mandatory social insurance schemes.
The issue of a gradual extension of maternity leave has given rise to controversy among the social partners. For the most part, employers spoke out against this, arguing that it would lead to a deterioration of women’s professional skills with the effect of reducing remuneration and preventing promotions. This would eventually contribute to women’s discrimination in the job market. The participants who support the idea of longer maternity leave highlighted the importance of interaction between mother and child during the first months of a child’s life.
Despite the fact that the family policy project has generally received a positive assessment, particularly in view of what have been insufficient efforts to date, the social partners did establish a lengthy list of objections. The proposals seem to have been accepted as ‘a good start’ and are considered to be moving in the right direction, but they still require further finetuning. To date, no implementation measures have been put in place, and no cohesive and comprehensive quality control measures to support these proposals exist. Some of the objections raised by the social partners included those listed below.
- The project does not offer any comprehensive solutions for families with disabled children or those with many children, particularly given the risk of poverty in some parts of Poland. Moreover, rural families – which face restricted access to medical care and educational facilities – are also omitted as a distinct category; this is of concern if one takes into account that Polish farmers do not pay income tax as part of the same scheme as the rest of the working population and, accordingly, will be bypassed by any solution operating by way of the general fiscal system.
- Despite the fact that the project has highlighted the problem of poorly organised, ineffective social services for families in crisis situations, it falls short on proposals of a preventive nature designed to avert forcing children into foster care. Research carried out by the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP) into Poland’s child and family care system has identified the lack of structured work with families as a major failure of the relevant laws.
- The project does not sufficiently recognise the role of the father in the process of raising children and does not propose any means of supporting fathers in the performance of their family duties, even though other countries offer many examples worth replicating – in Norway, for instance, parental leave may be extended from 30 to 36 months provided that both parents avail of it. In addition, the flexible forms of employment discussed as part of the project should also be extended to fathers.
Several debates on the government’s draft programme took place at the following levels:
- an expert debate – the programme was submitted to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), self-government bodies, employers, trade unions and academics for their comments;
- a social debate – the document was posted on the website of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (Ministerstwo Pracy i Polityki Społecznej, MPiPS), and visitors to the site were invited to submit their comments on it;
- a media debate – Deputy Minister Kluzik-Rostkowska promoted the project during numerous radio and television appearances.
Given that the family policy project is not a formal proposition of a law, the debate – rather than assuming the form of formal consultations – was more of an open forum, as the main idea was to determine the general reactions to its contents.
The family policy project is not a legislative proposal but a loose compilation of suggestions for development. As a result, it lacks a unified structure and sets out general ideas, rather than proposals for specific measures. It is not necessarily designed to interconnect with legislation currently in force, and does not take into account work being pursued in closely related areas by the Ministry of National Education (Ministerstwo Edukacji Narodowej, MEN), the Ministry of Health (Ministerstwo Zdrowia, MZ) and other government authorities.
The government appears not to have fully grasped the essence of recent cultural shifts which influence the decisions of young Poles concerning parenthood. The current list of support measures for families is decidedly too restricted and the benefits are not individualised: the various financial, in-kind, or institutional benefits remain independent of the number of children in a given family, the decision to resume or discontinue work following maternity leave, and of various other important factors. This blind nature of the benefits renders them inflexible overall.
The cost of implementing the proposals discussed as part of the project seems to have been underestimated. There is a tendency to nonchalantly transfer the financial burden of introducing change to the local communities which, meanwhile, are struggling to manage given their current financial position.
A strong point of the project relates to the measures supporting family-friendly policies at company level in terms of flexicurity – these include mainly flexible forms of work organisation and working time arrangements, as well as some active social policy measures. Equally welcome are all the proposals focused on fostering a friendly environment for parents of young children and to accommodate them in the context of the tax and pensions systems.
The current situation in Poland appears to be a favourable one for introducing multi-level solutions in the area of family policy, with the cultural and demographic changes now underway giving rise to a political and social consensus in this regard. The proposed family policy project has not engendered many complaints, not even among the opposition parties. In the longer term, family policy will have to become part of the social pact which the social partners are currently debating. It is thus important that the Polish government uses the opportunity now available to them in the form of general public agreement on their proposals to improve family policy.
Kamila Hernik, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)