EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

The EU parental leave agreement and Directive: implications for national law and practice

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  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Date of Publication: 27 January 1998



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Mark Hall
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The December 1995 framework agreement on parental leave was the first such accord between the EU-level social partners, and was given legal force by a Council Directive in June 1996. This comparative study: outlines current parental leave provisions in the Member States (plus Norway); examines the perceptions of the framework agreement/Directive and the changes it requires in national provisions; and assesses the practical impact of current parental leave provisions and the likely effect of the agreement/Directive.

Parental leave has been a long-standing item on the European Union's social policy agenda, and features in the 1989 Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, which states that "measures should ... be developed enabling men and women to reconcile their occupational and family obligations."

Proposals for a Directive on the issue were first put forward by the European Commission in 1983 but, despite the existence of a broad consensus among Member States in favour of such a measure, opposition from the previous Conservative UK Government prevented the Directive's adoption. The ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union presented the opportunity to progress the issue via the Maastricht social policy Agreement- from which the UK had opted out. Following the two phases of consultation involving the EU-level social partners required by the Maastricht social policy procedure, the three general cross-industry social partner organisations - the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) - opted to negotiate an agreement covering parental leave. The result was the first ever Community-level framework agreement, concluded in December 1995.

The framework agreement and Directive on parental leave

The social partners' framework agreement on parental leave is "designed to facilitate the reconciliation of parental and professional responsibilities for working parents". It applies to all workers, men and women, who have an employment contract or employment relationship as defined by the law, collective agreements or practices in force in each EU Member State. The agreement's main provisions are as follows.

  • Men and women workers must have an individual, non-transferable right to at least three months' parental leave for childcare purposes (as distinct from maternity leave) after the birth or adoption of a child until a given age of up to eight years to be defined by Member States and/or management and labour.
  • The conditions of access and detailed rules governing parental leave are to be defined by national law and/or collective agreement. National provisions may determine whether parental leave is granted "on a full-time or part-time basis, in a piecemeal way or in the form of a time-credit system" and may include provisions on a length of service qualification of up to one year, the special circumstances of adoption, notice periods, the circumstances in which employers may postpone the taking of leave, and "special arrangements to meet the operational and organisational requirements of small undertakings".
  • Workers must be protected against dismissal on the grounds of applying for or taking parental leave, have the right to return to the same or similar job and maintain previously acquired rights.
  • Member States and/or management and labour must take the necessary measures to entitle workers to time off from work on grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons in cases of sickness or accident making their immediate presence indispensable, though Member States and/or management and labour may specify conditions of access and detailed rules and may limit this entitlement to a certain amount of time per year and/or per case.

In accordance with the Maastricht social policy procedure, the three signatory organisations requested the Commission and the Council of Ministers to give the agreement statutory backing, and in June 1996 the Council adopted a Directive (96/34/EC) requiring Member States to put the framework agreement on parental leave into effect.

Member States which are signatories to the Maastricht social policy Agreement (ie excluding the UK) must bring into force the necessary laws, regulations and administrative provisions to comply with the Directive by 3 June 1998. Alternatively they must ensure that the necessary measures are introduced by collective agreement (though the Member States must be able to guarantee the results required by the Directive). An additional year's grace (ie until 3 June 1999) is available "if this is necessary to take account of special difficulties or implementation by a collective agreement".

As regards the position of the UK, the Labour Government elected in May 1997 has also agreed to implement the parental leave Directive. To facilitate this, on 15 December 1997 the Council of Ministers approved an "extension" Directive (97/75/EC) to apply the provisions of the existing Directive to the UK, thus ending the UK's "opt-out". The deadline for implementation by the UK is two years from the date of adoption of the extension Directive - ie 15 December 1999.

The comparative study

Arrangements for parental leave vary widely across Europe, and although the majority of EU Member States provide a statutory right to parental leave, some do not. In some countries, legislation is the sole or predominant way in which parental leave issues are regulated, whereas in others a significant role is played by collective agreements. Against this background, the aims of this comparative study are:

  • to give an overview of existing national provisions governing parental leave and leave for family reasons, whether set by legislation or collective agreement;
  • to give an overview of the perceptions of national governments and social partner organisations of the parental leave framework agreement/Directive;
  • to identify what changes, if any, are necessary to bring national provisions into line with requirements of the framework agreement/Directive, and how this will be done (ie by law and/or collective agreement); and
  • to assess the impact of existing national parental leave provisions in practice and the likely impact of the framework agreement/Directive in the different Member States.

This study is based on individual country reports submitted by the EIRO national centres and on other published sources, and covers the situation in the 15 Member States of the EU plus Norway. Further details of current law and practice in the area of parental leave can be found in the national reports for the various countries, which will be available on the EIRO database. The focus of the study is on the aspects of parental leave covered by the social partners' agreement/Directive, ie the option of either parent taking a sustained period of leave for childcare purposes, other than maternity leave taken immediately before and after childbirth, and provision for unplanned leave necessitated by urgent family reasons.

Current statutory provisions in the 16 countries

Our survey of national parental leave arrangements shows that while 13 of the countries concerned have detailed statutory provisions, two (Ireland and the United Kingdom) do not, and in Luxembourg provision is limited. Moreover, there is considerable variation in the specific provisions which apply in each country in respect of issues such as transferability between parents, duration of leave, financial arrangements, scope for flexibility in the way leave is taken, and eligibility conditions. The key aspects of each country's current statutory provisions are outlined in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Statutory parental leave provisions in the EU Member States and Norway
Austria The law provides a right to parental leave until the child's second birthday, during which a state benefit, funded by the social insurance system, is payable. Parental leave may be taken by either parent, or shared between them. Alternatively, employees may opt to work part time for a period of up to four years (two years if both parents work part-time simultaneously). After a period of leave, employers are obliged to re-engage employees in a similar position. There is also statutory entitlement to paid time off, up to a maximum of two weeks a year, to care for sick relatives including children, or to look after a child if the usual carer is not available.
Belgium Fathers may take three days' paid paternity leave during the 12 days following the birth of their child. There is also a system of career breaks which can be used for childcare purposes: workers may take a period of leave of between six months and five years and receive an allowance corresponding to unemployment benefit, on the basis that they are replaced by someone who is registered unemployed. In April 1997 the bipartite National Labour Council concluded a national collective agreement (No. 64) implementing the provisions of the EU parental leave Directive. The agreement applies to all sectors and/or firms which have not concluded equivalent agreements. Two royal degrees will be adopted shortly giving the agreement the force of law. The agreement will apply from 1 January 1998. It establishes an individual, non-transferable right to three months' parental leave for male and female workers, to be taken no later than the child's fourth birthday. Leave can be taken in separate sections or in the form of reduced working hours. At the end of the leave period, the worker is entitled to return to his or her original post or, if this is not possible, to an equivalent or similar position. The National Labour Council has recommended that the government introduce a fixed monthly payment during parental leave, to be paid out of the social security budget.
Denmark In addition to maternity and paternity leave provisions (fathers are entitled to take two weeks' leave after the birth or adoption of a child), one of the parents may take up to 10 weeks' parental leave or this may be shared by the parents. Furthermore, since 1994, up to a year's parental leave may be given to parents of children aged up to eight years. Employees have a right to 13 weeks' child-minding leave (26 weeks if the child is under one year old); the remaining period is subject to agreement with the employer. Leave benefit of 60% of the maximum rate of unemployment benefit is payable (reduced from 70% in April 1997).
Finland Fathers are entitled to paternity leave of six to 12 weekdays during the mother's maternity leave (which lasts 105 days), plus six days which may be taken at any time during the maternity leave or parental leave (which lasts 158 days - see below). In addition, following statutory maternity leave, either parent is entitled to 158 days' parental leave during which a parents' allowance is paid. This is also available to the parents of an adopted child under the age of seven. There is also statutory provision for parents to take subsequent unpaid care leave for children under three years of age, for unpaid temporary care leave of up to four days in cases of a child under 10 falling ill, and for reduced working hours ("partial care leave") until the end of the year in which the child begins school. In each case, employees returning from leave have the right to return to their former job or comparable work.
France The law entitles all employees, men and women, to take parental leave or to work part-time following the birth or adoption of a child. This may be taken at any time between the end of maternity or adoption leave and the child's third birthday or the third anniversary of adoption. The initial period of leave must not exceed one year. It may then be renewed twice, ending on the child's third birthday or three years after adoption. After the first year, employees may either extend their leave or part-time work, or switch from leave to part-time work. The leave is unpaid, but eligible employees may receive a state allowance - the allocation parentale d'éducationor APE - in respect of the second and subsequent children. At the end of the leave or part-time work, employees return to their previous job or a similar job with the same salary. In 1994, an unpaid statutory three-day period of leave to look after a sick child was introduced. This can be extended to five days if the child is less than one year old.
Germany The law provides for parental leave to be taken by either parent (where both are employed) between the end of maternity leave and the child's third birthday. The leave may be shared between the parents. In the case of adoption, leave entitlement is for three years from adoption until the child is seven. During parental leave, part-time work of up to 19 hours a week is allowed. Payment by the employer is suspended during leave (unless there is an arrangement to work part-time) though the period of leave is included in the calculation of the worker's social rights (eg length of service). A monthly state benefit is available for up to two years, subject to means-testing. All employees have a statutory right to up to 10 days' leave to care for a sick child (20 days for lone parents) during which a benefit of 80% of earnings is payable.
Greece Since 1984, the law has enabled any parents (including adoptive parents) who work in an enterprise or establishment with 100 or more employees to take unpaid childcare leave of up to three months between the end of maternity leave and the child reaching two and a half years of age. Only 8% of company employees can be granted this leave in any year, on a first-come-first-served basis. In addition, parents in employment are entitled to take up to six working days each year as unpaid leave of absence in cases of illness affecting their children or other dependants. The duration is eight days if they have two children and 10 if they have three or more. Parents working in companies which employ at least 50 people and who are responsible for disabled children are entitled to a one-hour reduction in their working hours, with a corresponding reduction in their wages. There is also provision for parents of school-age children under 16 to be absent from work to visit school for a maximum of four days.
Ireland There is currently no legal obligation on Irish employers to provide parental leave. It is an issue which is left to the discretion of individual employers and their employees and representatives and, at present, voluntary provision for parental leave is rare. However, the Irish Government is committed to introducing parental leave legislation in accordance with the Directive.
Italy Following an obligatory period of maternity leave, ending three months after confinement, working mothers or fathers may apply for an optional period of leave of six months prior to the child's first birthday, and for leave to look after a sick child until he or she is three. During this leave, the pay level is fixed at 30% of the wage/salary, to be paid by the employer. Since 1992, additional leave has been available to parents of severely disabled children.
Luxembourg In the private sector, women employees may stop work for up to a year after maternity leave and receive priority consideration for vacancies but are not guaranteed re-engagement. In the public sector, women employees have the right to up to two years' unpaid parental leave following maternity leave, and may request a period of unpaid childcare leave or part-time working to look after children up to the age of 15, with the timing of their re-engagement dependent upon a suitable vacancy arising. There is also provision for eight weeks' leave on the adoption of a child (12 weeks if two or more children are adopted). This is available to either adoptive parent. There are no statutory provisions on leave for urgent family reasons.
The Netherlands The statutory parental leave provisions first introduced in 1991 were amended in July 1997. The law entitles an employee with at least one year's service who is the mother or father of a child under school age to take unpaid parental leave over a period of up to six months in the form of reduced weekly working hours. Employees may take 13 weeks' normal weekly working hours as leave, spread over six months, although alternative arrangements can be made by agreement. In the case of adoption, one of the adoptive parents is entitled to paid leave for up to four weeks. In October 1997, the Council of Ministers decided to double the leave entitlement in the event of the birth of twins or the adoption of two children. Dutch law also makes provision for short-term paid leave in extraordinary family circumstances.
Norway Both parents are entitled to parental leave, during which parental benefit is payable, not jointly exceeding one year in duration. Certain amounts of the total leave period are only available as maternity and paternity leave (the latter entitlement being four weeks). The remainder can be shared between the parents as they see fit. Reduced amounts of leave are available in the event of adoption, and special arrangements apply to multiple births or adoptions. Entitlement to parental benefit depends on the employee having been in paid employment for at least six of the last 10 months prior to the birth/adoption; the level of benefit will depend on the parent's salary level and the working hours of the mother while accumulating her right to parental benefit. In addition, each parent is entitled to up to one year's unpaid leave for each child (two years where there is only one working parent). In the case of adoption, parents have the right to three years' joint leave where the child is under the age of 15. Fathers are entitled to two weeks' unpaid leave either before or after the birth of a child. Subject to the employer's agreement, reduced working hours are possible for both parents for up to two years after which they can return to their former working hours. By agreement with the employer, leave with benefit may be combined with reduced working hours for up to two years although the total benefit remains the same, though in this case employees lose their right to unpaid leave. Employees are entitled to leave with sick pay for up to 10 days per year (15 days where there are more than two children in the family). Special arrangements apply in respect of single parents, disabled or chronically ill children or those with life-threatening illnesses. Employees have statutory protection against dismissal during periods of parental leave or on grounds of taking such leave.
Portugal All employees have a right to a period of unpaid parental leave for between six months and two years following maternity leave. The law grants working fathers the right to two working days' paternity leave and, under exceptional circumstances or by parental joint decision, fathers may take leave in lieu of the mother's maternity leave entitlement. In cases of the adoption of children under the age of three, 60 consecutive days' leave is granted to one of the parents but only if both parents work. Time off work may be taken by either parent to care for children under the age of 10 who are ill - up to 30 days per year or the entire time if a child is hospitalised. Up to 15 days off per year is allowed for children over the age of 10. Special leave may be taken for a maximum of two years to care for children under the age of three, or for a maximum of four years to care for disabled or chronically ill children. The law also confers the right to a reduction in weekly working hours of up to five hours to enable parents to care for disabled children of up to one year of age. The law allows workers with children under 12 or disabled children to request part-time work or flexibility in working patterns for up to three years.
Spain A maximum period of three years' unpaid parental leave may be taken by either the mother or the father. A right to reinstatement after taking leave applies to the first year. Thereafter, the worker is entitled to a post in the same professional category or an equivalent one. Parents with children who are under six or disabled are entitled to a reduction in their working hours of up to 50%. Legislation also regulates absence from work in cases of force majeure. Paid leave lasting two days (four if travel is necessary) is granted in cases of serious illness of a child and can be requested by both the mother and the father.
Sweden Mothers and fathers who have been with their employer for the preceding six months or at least 12 months during the preceding two years are entitled to full leave until the child has reached 18 months (or for 18 months following an adoption). They are also entitled to a reduction in working hours until the child is eight years old or until it has finished its first year at school, with the right to return to full-time work with one month's notice. A parents' allowance is payable for 450 days (plus 180 days for each additional child in multiple births), and may be used at any time up to the child's eighth birthday. Each parent is entitled to half of the 450 days, but they can transfer all but 30 days (the so-called "father's month") to each other. Flexible use can be made of the statutory provisions by mixing part-time working and full leave. After the benefit has run out, parents still have the right to a 25% reduction in their normal working hours but without any compensation. Fathers also have a special right to 10 days' leave with parents' allowance to be present at the delivery of a child and to assist the mother during the child's first two months. The same applies when a child under the age of 10 is adopted. Temporary leave may be taken by parents to care for sick children, to take them to visit heath service institutions or to cover for the child's usual carer if the latter falls ill. Temporary parents' allowance is payable for these purposes for 60 days a year per child until their 12th birthday and for extended periods where the child requires special care. Workers are protected against dismissal on grounds that they have taken or requested parental leave.
United Kingdom There is no existing legislation in the UK providing for parental leave other than statutory maternity leave. Organisation-specific parental leave arrangements introduced via collective agreement or management initiative are relatively uncommon, but spreading. The current UK Government is committed to introducing, in the words of the Labour Party's election manifesto, "limited unpaid parental leave" in line with the Directive.

The role of collective agreements

In some countries, collective agreements have played only a very minor role in supplementing statutory provision. This is the case, for example, in Austria and Sweden, where the law provides generous and detailed parental leave arrangements, and Spain, where the trade unions have focused more on promoting legislative change than on securing improved conditions through collective bargaining.

Elsewhere, collective bargaining is reported to have more of a regulatory impact on parental leave provision - though to widely varying extents.

  • In Belgium, the Ministry of Labour recently identified agreements concluded by 71 sectoral joint committees or sub-committees on the subject of career breaks, including for childcare purposes.
  • In Denmark, most public and private sector collective agreements include the right to leave on a child's first day of sickness. In the private sector, such absences are usually covered by sickness benefit. In the public sector, most employees have the right to paid leave on a child's first day of sickness, and some collective agreements provide for childcare days. In some cases, leave benefit may be supplemented by employer contributions.
  • In Finland, a few sectoral collective agreements require employers to supplement partly the state allowance during parental leave. Some agreements enhance workers' entitlement to short temporary absences from work when children aged under 10 fall ill (eg by providing full pay in such circumstances).
  • In France, a recent survey of 320 sectoral collective agreements found that 140 included clauses on leave for looking after sick children but only 57 provided for paid leave. At company level, some agreements (eg at Fleury Michon) have introduced extended parental leave entitlement and supplementary payment for those taking leave (which under the law is exempt from taxation and social contributions).
  • Since the late 1980s, collective agreements in Germany have increasingly extended and improved upon the statutory entitlements. According to the BDA employers' confederation, in 1994 parental leave provisions were included in seven sectoral framework agreements, including banking, retail, metalworking and insurance. In the metalworking sector, seven state-level agreements covered parental leave. Though the provisions vary, some agreements enable workers to take additional periods of unpaid leave (eg up to a total of five years in banking and retail) while retaining their job or a similar post. A number of company or works agreements extend the leave arrangements specified by law or by sectoral agreements, eg at Audi, Daimler-Benz, Siemens and Lufthansa.
  • In Greece, the 1993 national general collective agreement included provisions on childcare leave which improve on the statutory provision by extending the leave that can be taken from three to 3.5 months and the period during which it can be taken to the child's third birthday, though this is restricted to workers in companies employing more than 50 people. At sectoral and company level, agreements tend to reflect the statutory position and the provisions of the national general collective agreement. Exceptions include agreements in the banking sector improving the length of unpaid childcare leave available and providing for paid leave of absence when a child is ill. Similar developments are reported in the insurance and commerce sectors.
  • In Italy, collective bargaining in many sectors and companies has extended workers' entitlement to parental leave. However, while sector-level negotiation has in many cases increased the proportion of normal wages paid during compulsory maternity leave above the statutory level (80%), collective agreements have not tended to improve upon the 30% level which applies to optional parental leave. During 1997, the main trade union confederations launched a concerted initiative to improve existing provision on parental leave in sectoral collective agreements in the light of the Directive's standards.
  • In Luxembourg, collective agreements covering extended parental leave are reported to be rare, though a number of agreements have introduced provisions permitting short-term leave for urgent family reasons, on which there is currently no legislation. Examples include the sectoral agreements covering banking staff and crèche workers and company agreements at CEGEDEL, ELTH, Goodyear, Grands Magasins Monipol and Yves Rocher.
  • Research in the Netherlands shows that 35% of collective agreements in 1994, covering 53% of employees, contained provisions extending the possibilities for taking parental leave, or reducing the consequences for pension and social security rights. Most notably, paid parental leave is available to national and local civil servants, the police, the judiciary and some other public sector groups. Civil servants receive 75% of their wages for the hours they take as leave, and have greater flexibility in the way their leave is structured. It can, for instance, be taken as full leave for three months or spread over a year.
  • In Norway, public sector agreements (and some in the private sector) provide for the gap between the state benefits payable and employees' normal pay levels to be made up by employers. Public sector agreements also improve on normal regulations by allowing fathers the right to pay during their two weeks' leave at the time of the child's birth.
  • In Portugal, negotiated improvements to existing statutory provisions are rare, but there are examples of sectoral collective agreements widening the entitlement to paternity leave to include live-in life partners, extending the right to leave in the case of a miscarriage and introducing supplementary financial benefits.

In the "voluntarist" industrial relations systems of the UK and Ireland, collective agreements or management initiatives are currently the only source of parental leave provision beyond statutory maternity leave. Although there are signs of increasing interest in parental leave issues, prompted in part by the social partners' agreement/Directive, parental leave schemes remain thin on the ground.

  • In Ireland, only a small number of organisations have introduced parental leave arrangements. One exception is the Bank of Ireland where unpaid parental leave of up to one year's duration can be taken by staff of either sex until their child's eighth birthday. Other organisations such as Aer Rianta and the civil service have introduced a number of other "family-friendly" policies such as career breaks, job-sharing and paternity leave. The vast majority of Irish organisations are said to be waiting for the legislation to implement the Directive before taking action in this area.
  • A recent study in the UK by the independent "think-tank" Demos suggests that only 3% of employers currently offer parental leave and that few are planning to introduce it over the next three years. A number of agreements which provide for parental leave have been reported at organisations such as British Gas, AT&T, and the Bank of England. Elsewhere, companies with reported paid paternity leave provision, usually of two to five days' duration, include Somerset Stores, British Aerospace, Thomas Cook, LDV, the Clydesdale Bank, British Steel and AAH Pharmaceuticals. Sectoral collective agreements such as those covering clothing workers and the shoe retailing industry also make provision for paid paternity leave.

Implementing the framework agreement/Directive

For the majority of EU countries, the Directive is unlikely to entail major changes to existing parental leave arrangements, but in many cases some detailed amendment or additional provision will be necessary, most frequently in the area of time off from work on grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons. By contrast, in the three countries in which existing national parental leave arrangements are underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the EU - Ireland, Luxembourg and the UK - the Directive will have significant repercussions, requiring the introduction of extensive new statutory provisions. The available information on the current state of play regarding national transposition of the Directive, and the views of national governments and social partner organisations, is summarised in Table 2.

Table 2: National transposition of the parental leave Directive
Austria Some adaptation of national law will be necessary in the light of the Directive but discussions with the social partners launched in 1997 have been suspended pending a decision of the European Court of Justice on a complaint by UEAPME, the European body claiming to represent small and medium-sized companies, that its non-involvement in the negotiations leading to the framework agreement invalidates both the agreement and the Directive.
Belgium The new provisions being introduced in response to the Directive have already been outlined (see Table 1).
Denmark The Ministry of Labour has asked the social partners whether they wish to implement the urgent family leave aspects of the Directive via collective agreements. The social partners have indicated that they will endeavour to do so during the next bargaining round. The Ministry has therefore sought the extension of the Directive's implementation date until 3 June 1999. A number of sectoral agreements have already introduced such provisions. The LO trade union confederation considers that agreed provision in this area needs to be supplemented by law to cover employees not covered by an agreement.
Finland The social partners do not believe existing provisions are affected by the Directive, but the issue is being reviewed by a tripartite committee charged with the task of reforming the Contracts of Employment Act.
France The area where French legislation may need to be supplemented concerns time off from work for urgent family reasons.
Germany Entitlement to parental leave is currently dependent on the employment status of the other parent, as opposed to being an individual entitlement. This may need changing in the light of the Directive.
Greece No legislative steps are reported. The 1996-7 national general collective agreement states that the parties adopt the framework agreement and recognise the need to introduce the necessary measures in order to bring it into force.
Ireland The Partnership 2000 national agreement contains a government commitment to give effect to the terms of the EU Directive by June 1998, and to consult the social partners about the necessary provisions. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is seeking paid parental leave along the lines of current maternity leave provisions, so that it would be of particular benefit to low-paid workers. On the employers' side, IBEC has formally endorsed the social partners' agreement at Community level, but has urged the Irish Government to take full advantage of the flexibility that is provided for in the text of the agreement. In particular, IBEC is pressing for a three-year implementation period, for the right to postpone leave in a variety of circumstances/crisis situations, and for account to be taken of the needs of small firms. The legislative process is still at a very early stage, and the Government may seek to defer the legislation for a further year on the grounds that Ireland is one of the few countries having to start from scratch due to the absence of any existing statutory provisions.
Italy While the main employers' confederation, Confindustria, believes that the Directive does not necessarily imply changes in Italian law, the trade unions consider that the Directive introduces certain improvements. Draft legislation on working time and family leave issues is currently under consideration within the parliamentary majority.
Luxembourg While trade unions strongly support the Directive, employer groups are reported to be resisting its early implementation. Draft transposition legislation has yet to be drawn up.
The Netherlands No changes to existing provision are thought necessary.
Norway The European Economic Area has yet to adopt the parental leave Directive, but existing national provision is thought to meet the requirements of the Directive. The NHO employers' organisation emphasises that the Directive should not lead to the extension of the paid parental leave period in Norway.
Portugal Draft legislation has been drawn up by the government. The validity of the framework agreement/Directive has been questioned by the Portuguese affiliates of EuroCommerce and COPA/COGECA (agriculture) which were not party to the agreement, arguing that it should not apply to sectors not represented in the negotiations.
Spain It is reported that there is a broad consensus on the need to improve current parental leave arrangements and that the Directive, though it requires only minor modifications of existing legislation, may be a stimulus for wider reform.
Sweden A recent government memorandum reflecting talks between the government and social partner organisations identifies certain changes to Swedish provision concerning leave for urgent family reasons which are considered necessary to comply with the Directive. The preferred route for achieving these changes is via collective agreement, but the memorandum contains a proposal for legislation should the social partners fail to reach an agreement.
UK The present Government has agreed to end the UK's opt out from the Maastricht social policy Agreement, and to implement the parental leave Directive. In its election manifesto, the ruling Labour Party argued that: "There must be a sound balance between support for family life and the protection of business from undue burdens - a balance which some of the most successful businesses already strike ... While recognising the need for flexibility in implementation and certain exemptions, we support the right of employees ... to limited unpaid parental leave." The Government is expected to implement the Directive by means of regulations (secondary legislation) and is likely to undertake a consultation exercise during 1998 to seek the views of interested parties about proposals for implementing the Directive.

The impact of existing parental leave arrangements

The data available on the practical impact of existing parental leave arrangements (eg take-up rates for parental leave, or the costs and benefits of parental leave for companies and employees) is sketchy. The following paragraphs briefly highlight certain key issues.

As Table 3 shows, in each country for which figures are available, the take-up rate for extended parental leave among women is generally very high (except in the Netherlands) - typically 90% or more. In stark contrast, the take-up rate among men tends to be very low. Only in Sweden and Norway does a substantial proportion of fathers take parental leave.

Table 3: National take-up rates of parental leave
Country % take-up by women % take-up by men
Austria 90 1
Denmark 93 3
Finland 99 2
Germany 95 1
Netherlands 40 9
Norway 94 33
Sweden 90 78

Source: "Time out: the costs and benefits of paid parental leave", H Wilkinson et al, Demos, London (1997) .

Clearly a range of factors underlie these figures, including social attitudes and workplace culture. However, design facets of the various national parental leave schemes - such as the level of income while on parental leave, the extent to which leave is transferable between partners, the flexibility of the available arrangements and the degree of job protection - are also likely to be an important influence.

For example, the high levels of income guaranteed by the Swedish and Norwegian systems are one factor encouraging the comparatively high male take-up of parental leave in these countries. Moreover, in Sweden, the fall in the level of parents' allowance payable after 360 days means that the longer periods of leave available are not used to the same extent. In the context of men's generally higher earning power, lower income guarantees elsewhere in Europe appear to discourage men from taking parental leave.

The existence of a non-transferable period of leave for each parent is also regarded as a positive element in promoting greater gender equality in parental leave take-up. Non-transferable leave periods feature in the Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch parental leave systems, and the introduction of this in Norway has been associated with an increase in men's use of parental leave. Flexible leave arrangements allowing parents to reduce working hours, such as those which apply in the Netherlands, may also facilitate male participation (but the level of women workers taking parental leave is markedly lower than elsewhere). In Denmark, the commercial and clerical employees' union has proposed making the parental leave scheme more flexible so as to make it more attractive to fathers.

As to perceptions of the costs and benefits of parental leave, the Demos study identifies the main problems with offering parental leave anticipated by UK employers which do not currently do so. Even though the study reported widespread managerial awareness of the potential business benefits of providing such schemes in terms of recruitment and retention of key staff, enhancing the organisation's reputation, staff motivation etc, employers tended to take the view that the benefits would not justify the costs, that it would be too expensive to replace staff and that staff absence would be disruptive. The experience of the Netherlands' parental leave arrangements appears to bear out some of these concerns. For example, in certain sectors, finding suitable replacement staff for those on parental leave is reported to have been difficult. In Germany, however, a study found that 90% of companies had experienced no major problems with parental leave and had not incurred significant costs as a result of parental leave per se.

In Ireland, the Employment Equality Agency stresses that family friendly policies such as parental leave can benefit both employers and employees and can result in a "win-win" situation. The benefits to employers are said to include the retention of skilled and effective employees, a more highly motivated and productive workforce, reduced stress amongst employees, reduced levels of employee sickness and absenteeism, an improved company image, and improved cooperation and trust between the social partners.

Commentary

For most commentators, the main significance of the social partners' framework agreement on parental leave and the subsequent Council Directive lies less in their impact on Member States' national parental leave provisions than in the fact the agreement was the first ever to have been reached under the Maastricht social policy procedure. However, while it is true that the central aspects of existing parental leave provision by most Member States will be largely unaffected by the agreement/Directive, and significant issues are left to the Member States to determine, the agreement by no means represents a "lowest common denominator" approach to EU-level regulation. As we have seen, important new parental leave arrangements have recently been introduced in Belgium in response to the Directive, and in three further countries - Ireland, Luxembourg and the UK - the introduction of extensive new statutory provisions will be required. In a number of other countries, some more limited amendment of or addition to existing provision will be necessary, most frequently in the area of time off from work on grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons.

Arguably more important, however, is whether the agreement/Directive will have any significant practical impact on the pattern of parental leave-taking by Europe's workers. With the exception of Sweden and Norway, where male take-up rates are relatively high, existing parental leave schemes have been criticised as "extended forms of maternity leave, heightening economic inequalities between men and women and reinforcing traditional gender roles" (Demos report, p. 83). In some countries (eg France), parental leave has been seen primarily as an element of family policy rather than integrated with the objectives of labour market and equal opportunities policies. The sex equality rationale of the EU-level social partners' framework agreement is reflected in its provision that the minimum three-month period of parental leave should be an individual entitlement for both male and female workers, granted "in principle" on a non-transferable basis. As already noted, this aspect of the design of parental leave schemes is associated with increased take-up by men. However, the predominant factor in determining take-up rates is widely seen as being whether or parental leave is paid, and to what extent. Crucially, the framework agreement is silent on this. This is understandable in the light of the diversity of existing national practice, the political pressures to contain social costs and the fact that the inclusion of any provision affecting social security issues would have meant that the subsequent Directive would be subject to unanimous approval rather than qualified majority voting within the Council of Ministers. It remains to be seen whether there will be scope for this key issue to be addressed if, as is envisaged, the social partners review the application of the agreement in 2001. (Mark Hall, IRRU).

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