Employers' group forced to retract proposal that women pay for maternity leave

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In late 2000, a small Spanish business group, the Circle of Employers, was forced to make a public apology for suggesting that employed women pay the employers' maternity leave costs. Though the proposal was widely condemned as being unconstitutional and inapplicable, as well as socially and economically irrational, it shows how the debate on gender discrimination in the Spanish labour market still focuses on maternity leave. Spain is the EU country with the lowest birth rate and the lowest level of female employment.

In the context of the presentation of a report entitled The necessary labour reform (La reforma laboral necesaria) on 29 November 2000, the Circle of Employers (Círculo de Empresarios) suggested that women of child-bearing age should pay employers' maternity leave costs. A proportion of the monthly wage of these women should be paid into an insurance policy that would cover the wages and contributions that companies pay to women on maternity leave. If the woman have had no children by the age of approximately 56, these contributions would be returned to them with the corresponding interest. The proposal, presented as an innovative approach to gender equality in a context of "managerial excellence", was not accompanied by data or economic estimates.

The trade unions, the political parties, the main employers' organisations and government representatives responded immediately and forcefully to a proposal that was regarded as clearly absurd and contrary to the constitutional principles of equality, forcing the board of directors of the Circle of Employers to retract and present a public apology. A few days after the controversy, the president of the Circle of Employers placed his post at the disposal of the board of directors, but was ratified as president on 14 December. The Circle of Employers, created in 1977, is composed of about 200 employers and top executives of mainly private companies that – according to its own sources – employ over 715,000 workers. It is characterised by its ultra-liberal economic proposals.

Indignant response

The proposal caused indignation among all the political parties and trade unions, which referred to the basic principles that govern the Spanish social security system, and pointed out that children have both mothers and fathers and are the joint responsibility of society. In fact, in Spain men can now use up to 10 of the 16 weeks of the statutory paid maternity leave. A group of 32 female deputies of various political parties in the parliament of Catalonia made a joint declaration qualifying the proposal as retrograde and "a cause for concern".

The main employers' organisations - including the Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organisations (Confederación Española de Organizaciones Empresariales, CEOE), the Catalan Foment del Treball, the Madrid CEIM, the Basque Confebask and the Spanish Federation of Women Employers (Federación Española de Mujeres Empresarias) - have declared that the current system of maternity leave works reasonably well and that they are against the proposal.

The government has responded that the measure proposed by the Circle of Employers would be unconstitutional, and contrary to recent legislation aimed at allowing people to combine family life and work. The General Secretary for Family Matters of the Generalitat (regional government) of Catalonia described the proposal as inappropriate in a country governed by the rule of law.

Measures aimed at reconciling work and family life in the NAP

Spain is the EU country with the lowest birth rate (1.07 children per woman of childbearing age) and female employment rate (67% of women aged 20 to 44 years without children and 40% of women with children under the age of six in 1998). The wage gap between men and women is about 30%.

In Spain, experts believe that the process of forming new families is currently being hindered by a convergence of social expectations, lack of job security and a housing shortage. In the 1990s, the rate of temporary employment rose progressively (to represent over 90% of new employment contracts) and many women felt that they could not allow themselves to become pregnant because they would become a burden to the company and would be unlikely to have their contracts renewed.

In Spain there is no explicit family policy, except for a set of individual measures of arguably doubtful coherence and effectiveness that were introduced for a variety of reasons. In 1997, parliament approved a report on the "situation of the family in Spain" with the recommendation that a family policy plan should be drawn up. It is still pending.

Meanwhile, in the framework of the European strategy for employment and Employment Guidelines, the Spanish National Action Plans (NAP s) for employment developed two measures in 1998 and 1999 to promote combining family life and work.

The first measure, called "zero cost" (ES9809182N), was intended to eliminate the additional cost of maternity leave for employers. In fact, it eliminates the costs of the employers' social security contributions for the new staff hired to replace those on maternity leave in the private sector, in which case the temporary contract is exempt from employers' social security contributions for the 16 weeks of the maternity leave. The government estimated that in 1997 only 8% of workers on maternity leave were replaced, and introduced this measure in order to raise this figure to 25%. In 1999, a total of 29,627 workers were hired on these cheaper contracts, representing 18% of the 165,946 persons taking maternity leave in that year. The latter represented 44% of all births in 1999.

The second measure is Law 39/1999 on combining family life and work (ES9911165F). This law revised the regulation of family-related leave in Spain, in order to complete the transposition into Spanish legislation of the EU Council Directives 92/85/EEC on maternity protection and 96/34/EC on parental leave. It pays special attention to the non-economic conditions of parental leave and family-related leave, stating that they can be taken by both men and women. It also stresses the need to improve legal guarantees for users of parental leave and to develop the Labour Risks Prevention Law in the area of maternity protection.


In view of the falling birth rate, an increasing number of experts agree that Spanish society and the labour market need to be modernised and to adapt to the new needs of combining family life and work. It is known that the measures that contribute to combining family life and work have costs and benefits for companies, families and the state. Little research has been done on the costs and benefits of these measures for the parties involved, but it is the responsibility of the authorities to regulate this matter with a view to achieving greater social welfare. A first step would be to provide reliable figures and comparative studies with other items of public expenditure, since it is the popular opinion that maternity leave involves a great cost.

The rapid social and political response to the Circle of Employers' proposal shows that there is a new consensus on improving maternity protection and parental leave in Spain. However, the fact that the proposal was made indicates that there are still major prejudices about the economic cost of maternity leave, and that the difficulties relating to childbirth and childcare are mainly linked to women; nobody refers to men and paternity. Whereas in most EU Member States nobody now questions maternity leave and the debate focuses on parental leave (ie leave that mothers and fathers can take after maternity leave in order to take care of their children at home for a year or more until they can attend an institution), in Spain the debate still focuses on the 16 weeks of paid maternity leave (Anna Escobedo, CIREM Foundation).

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