Government calls for 'father-friendly' changes to parental leave regulations

In autumn 2003, the Norwegian parliament is due to consider government proposals for changes to the present regulations on parental leave, with greater financial incentives for men to take leave and a possible extension of the part of parental leave reserved exclusively for fathers. The main objective is to encourage men to spend more time at home with their children.

On 30 April 2003, the centre-right coalition government published a parliamentary white paper on family policy, in which it recommends changes to the present regulations on parental leave (St Meld. nr 29 (2002-3)). The main objective of the government’s proposals is to encourage men to spend more time at home with their children. To this end, it proposes to extend the so-called 'father quota', which is the part of the parental leave period reserved for the father. It also proposes to improve the compensation level for self-employed women during parental leave .

Fathers, parental leave and wage compensation

Rights and entitlements with regards to parental leave and pay compensation are established by law in Norway. In developing the legal framework on parental leave, equality of opportunities has been a guiding principle, with a view to both promoting women's labour market participation and encouraging men to spend more time at home taking care of their children. The legal framework allows for a significant degree of sharing of parental leave between the parents, but so far this legal right has mainly been used by mothers. Organisations working to promote women’s rights and gender equality have long called for changes to the present legal framework, arguing that women will not be on an equal footing with men until the latter take on greater responsibilities at home.

At present, the period during which parents may receive state benefits related to childbirth is either 42 weeks with full (100%) wage compensation, or 52 weeks with 80% wage compensation. The last three weeks prior to birth and the first six weeks following birth are reserved for the mother (ie maternity leave), while four weeks are earmarked for the father (the so-called 'father quota'). The remaining leave may be shared between the parents as they see fit. The father quota was introduced in 1993 as an attempt to increase the involvement of fathers in their children’s early life. The 'father quota' may be used at any time during the shared period of leave, but is lost if not used by the father. The introduction of the 'father quota' led to an extension of parental leave, and it did not come at the expense of women's opportunities in relation to leave.

Parental leave benefits, whether they were awarded to the mother or the father, were previously linked to the prior employment and earnings history of the mother, but following amendments to the National Insurance Act in July 2000 the father is now entitled to parental benefits calculated on the basis of his own prior income. Thus both parents may now receive pay compensation up to a ceiling of NOK 319,398 (six times the national insurance 'basic amount') (2002 figures). However, full wage compensation for the father is still conditional upon the mother having been employed for more than 75% of normal working hours prior to the birth (assuming that the father works full time). If the mother worked less than 75% of normal hours – or goes back to part-time work of less than 75% – the father’s compensation or period of leave is reduced proportionately. If the mother worked less than 50% of normal hours or has not been in employment at all, the father receives no compensation.

Take-up by men

At the time of the introduction of the 'father quota', the number of men taking leave of absence from work to take care of children had increased from 4.1% in 1993 to 45% in 1994 (according to National Insurance Administration figures). This figure had increased to approximately 85% in 2001. It was hoped that the introduction of the 'father quota', and its obvious success, would encourage more men to take leave of absence beyond the four 'compulsory' weeks. This, however, has not been the case. In 2001 only 13.5% of the men receiving parental leave benefits did so for more than four weeks. Overall, fathers took an average of 26 days of paid parental leave in 2001, compared with 128 days taken by mothers.

There are a number of reasons why men fail to use the shared part of the parental leave period. One important reason is the fact that men's wages are on average higher than women's, and as such men more often than women earn more than the national insurance basic amount (see above) and thus lose out financially. Furthermore, as described above, fathers do not receive full compensation if the mother has been employed part time prior to birth (below 75% of full-time employment). The fact that the number of women working part time in Norway is high suggests that this is a significant problem. In such situations, a family may stand to lose valuable income if the father takes parental leave over a longer period.

Government proposals on leave for men

The government states that its new proposals are in attempt to remedy some of the impediments to the goal of equality between women and men that are still seen to exist in the legal framework. To this end, the father should be given a more independent standing vis-à-vis the mother in terms of parental leave.

The first step in this direction is to make the father’s right to benefits less dependent on the mother’s employment activities both before and after birth. Thus both parents should be entitled to benefits calculated on the basis of each parents’ individual income, independent of the each others’ activities prior to and after birth. The only requirement should be that 'the benefit recipient stays at home taking care of the child, and does not pursue employment'. The implication of this is that the father will receive full wage compensation (although not exceeding the basic amount) regardless of the mother’s previous earnings and working time. To begin with, according to the government’s recommendations, the father will be entitled to have the existing 'father quota' of four weeks' paid leave based on his own earnings, but envisages a further extension of this period at a later stage.

The government acknowledge in its paper that, within the present system, an extension of the compulsory 'father quota' alone would have serious consequences for the income of families. It also recognise the fact that such an arrangement would in many quarters be seen as an infringement of the rights of women (ie women would be deprived of leave they now are entitled to). Thus the government recommends that a reform of this kind should take the form of an extension of the total parental leave period (from the current 42 or 52 weeks). Although the proposal does not explicitly state the length of the proposed extension, the government envisages a gradual implementation of such an increase.

Proposals on self-employed women

In its parliamentary white paper, the government also proposes to change the rights and entitlements of self-employed women. Self-employed women do not enjoy the same compensation level for parental leave as employed women - whereas employed women may receive full wage compensation, self-employed women receive only 65% unless they have taken out supplementary insurance. Thus in connection with the changes made to paternity leave and fathers' entitlements to pay compensation, the government will also work to improve the situation of self-employed women in this area.

Commentary

The 'father quota' is beyond doubt a success story, a claim supported by figures such as the 85% take-up rate. It has not, however, had the desired effect of encouraging more men to take parental leave beyond the four 'compulsory' weeks. The extent to which this is achieved is an important measure of gender equality in working life as well as in society in general. For that reason the government is considering the possibility of extending the compulsory period. Although the government has presented no time-frame in relation to the extension of paternity leave, the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkeparti, Krf), which is part of the coalition government, has previously campaigned for 10 weeks of paternity leave (including the existing four compulsory weeks), although has not gone into details as to how this is to be achieved.

The government’s proposal seek to correct deficiencies in parental leave by means of changes to the legal framework, but research indicates that there are a number of other more fundamental reasons why so few men make use of the opportunities provided by the legal framework. One of the more important obstacles is beyond doubt the gender wage gap that still exists between women and men in Norway. The extent of part-time work among women is an equally important problem. Moreover, many women are reluctant to let go of their parental leave rights, and there is also evidence to suggest that employers, and indeed fathers themselves, are reluctant to see fathers availing themselves of their rights to paternity leave (see Fleksible fedre, Berit Brandth and Elin Kvande, Universitetsforlaget, 2003).

The government’s recommendations are to be considered by parliament (Stortinget) in autumn 2003 as part of the annual budget negotiations. There seem to be a general consensus about the need to allow men increased opportunities in relation to childcare, and increased paternity leave is but one measure by which this may be achieved. The recommendations presented by the government entail significant extra costs for the state, and as such it remains to be seen whether they will survive the forthcoming budget negotiations. (Håvard Lismoen, FAFO Institute of Applied Social Sciences)

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