Need for greater flexibility in parental benefit system

In recent months, two studies have highlighted the need for more flexibility in Estonia’s parental leave and parental benefit system. The reports suggest making it easier to combine part-time work and part-time parental leave. Fathers should also be encouraged to take parental leave. At present, traditional gender roles prevail and women’s careers are undermined by lengthy breaks away from the workplace.

Parental benefit in Estonia

The parental leave system in Estonia is generous both in terms of length and compensation. The maximum length of leave is three years, during which time the employer holds the job for the employee. Since 2004, with the enforcement of the Parental Benefit Act, 455 days of the total leave are fully compensated at a rate of 100% of the worker’s salary for the previous calendar year; this period will increase to 575 days in 2008. Once the total number of fully-paid days are used up, a flat-rate childcare allowance is paid, amounting to EEK 600 (€38 as of 9 August 2007) per child per month. Although the parental benefit scheme is widely approved and accepted, its eligibility rules and conditions are the subject of constant discussion.

Mothers in the labour market

During the spring of 2007, two qualitative studies on parental leave were carried out. Pajumets (2007) interviewed mothers and fathers of 20 families with at least one child under three years of age. The primary focus of this research was to analyse the incentives, barriers and attitudes in relation to mothers going to work, and to identify the different reasons behind their maternity leave and working decisions.

The study revealed that women prefer to take on more than one role in order to satisfy their ambitions. Women do not work only out of financial necessity: work is a means of achieving self-realisation, a way to be integrated and feel useful in society, and to receive acknowledgement. Furthermore, long breaks from work undermine people’s competitiveness in the labour market.

However, the current parental leave scheme forces a parent – usually the mother – to make a clear-cut choice between work and parental leave. Although working while on parental leave is allowed, the leave benefit is reduced depending on the amount of income earned, which makes working economically unattractive. Moreover, childcare facilities for children under the age of 18 months are limited, which further curtails the possibilities to work (EE0507NU01). This results in long breaks in women’s employment, which will be even more protracted after the recent change in the law, which – from 2008 – will extend the leave period to 575 days. Long breaks may influence women’s career chances, wages (EE0701029I, EE0412NU01) and eventually also their pension rights.

Thus, the author suggests that, together with encouraging flexible work and developing various childcare options, parental benefit should be made more flexible. Possible solutions include the idea of both parents sharing the parental benefit at the same time or dividing the parental leave period into several shorter periods.

Fathers on parental leave

A second study – by Karu et al (2007) on fathers’ parental leave – reached similar conclusions. A total of 20 in-depth interviews with fathers were conducted to determine the reasons for the very low take-up of parental leave by fathers: less than 2% of the beneficiaries are men. Overall, 10 fathers in the study had experience of parental leave and 10 did not.

Traditional gender roles still prevail in society and this, combined with an inflexible parental leave scheme, excludes fathers from childcare and family responsibilities. The belieft persists that the child primarily needs the mother and that the father is secondary. Fathers believe that they are more competent and irreplaceable at work than at home, particularly when the child is very young. Taking full leave from work is not acceptable for many men.

The authors conclude that more fathers would use their right to parental leave and parental benefit if the scheme allowed men to share the parental leave with the mother (either simultaneously or in turns), or if it enabled them to stay at home with a child older than one year or 18 months.

Furthermore, the existing policies perpetuate traditional views on gender roles. For instance, up until now, fathers have not been eligible for parental benefit until the child reaches the age of six months; this has strengthened the belieft that small children only need mothers. However, from September 2007, fathers can receive parental benefit once the child is 70 days old.

Studies recommend more flexibility

Both studies reached the same conclusion that, in order to achieve a better work and family balance, greater flexibility should be introduced to the parental leave scheme. If state policy redefines a ‘normal family’ as one in which fathers also contribute to childcare, this would help to confront traditional gender roles and eventually improve gender equality in the labour market and society (EE0609019I).

References and further information

Karu, M., Kasearu, K. and Biin, H., Isad ja lapsehoolduspuhkus, PRAXISe toimetised 29/2007.

Pajumets, M., ‘Miks emme läheb tööle? Naiste subjektiivsed ootused ja tööle antavad tähendused’, Töö ja Pere. Paindlik töökorraldus ja lastevanemate tööhõive, Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit, Tallinn, 2007.

For more on work-life balance in Estonia, see EE0612039Q (section 5).

Marre Karu and Liis Roosaar, PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies

 

 

 

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