EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life


Childcare denotes the care of children that is provided either by parents, the state, a private organisation or other person. It acquires particular relevance in employment and industrial relations when one or both parents works, and either needs time off to look after children or support from external organisations or networks.

A variety of EU policy measures have attempted to tackle the issue of childcare provision. Relevant legislative provisions include Directive 96/34/EC on the framework agreement on parental leave and Directive 92/85/EEC on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.

Council Recommendation 92/241/EEC on childcare urges Member States to develop measures to enable women and men to reconcile employment with family obligations arising from the care of children. According to the Recommendation, childcare services should be flexible and diverse enough to meet the different preferences, needs and circumstances of children and families. Moreover, employment should reflect the increased participation of women in the workforce, including the provision of special leave, to enable all employed parents to combine their working life with family responsibilities. The organisation of the workplace should be structured to provide an environment consistent with family and work–life balance. However, a 1998 Commission report on the implementation of the Recommendation revealed that no Member State had specifically set up a system to monitor its implementation and there was considerable variation in the measures adapted to address childcare issues.

The Barcelona European Council in 2002 (PDF) set a target to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between 3 years of age and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age. The European Commission’s mid-term assessment (PDF) in 2008 of progress towards the achievement of these targets found that:

  • the majority of Member States were yet to achieve the Barcelona targets;
  • some would require considerable further efforts in order to achieve them.

More recent research from the European Commission, published in 2014, found that progress towards meeting the Barcelona target (PDF) varied between Member States. The report noted that, although the employment rate of women had grown over the past decade in the EU27 (that is, excluding Croatia), motherhood remained negatively correlated with employment across most EU Member States. This suggested that the underlying goal of the Barcelona targets to increase the employment participation of parents remains unmet in many countries. For the EU27 as a whole, the difference between the employment rate for women with and without children under 12 years-old was more than 10 percentage points. Furthermore, across the EU27, women who had children under the mandatory school age and who stated they did not work or worked only part time for reasons linked to childcare, did so because childcare was too expensive (53%), not available (25%), of inadequate quality (4%) or for other reasons (18%).

Most recently, the New Start initiativepart of the EU’s European Pillar for Social Rights – seeks to address the work–life balance challenges faced by working parents and carers. This initiative takes into account developments in society over the past decade to enable parents and other people with caring responsibilities to better balance their work and family lives, and to encourage a better sharing between women and men of caring responsibilities. It is based on the results of a public consultation, a two-stage social partner consultation and analysis of the accompanying impact assessment. The European Commission’s Communication An initiative to support work–life balance for working parents and carers issued in April 2017 sets out a comprehensive package of complementary legal and policy measures, which aim to reinforce each other.

The proposed legislative measures include:

  • the introduction of paternity leave – fathers/second parents will be able to take at least 10 working days of paternity leave around the time of birth of the child, compensated for at least at the level of sick pay;
  • the strengthening of parental leave by making the four-month period compensated for at least at the level of sick pay and non-transferable from a parent to another;
  • giving parents the right to request the taking of leave in a flexible way (part-time or in a piecemeal way) and increasing the age of the child up to which parents can take leave from 8 to 12 years;
  • the introduction of carers’ leave for workers caring for seriously ill or dependent relatives (working carers would be able to take five days per year, compensated for at least at the level of sick pay);
  • the extension of the right to request flexible working arrangements (reduced working hours, flexible working hours and flexibility in place of work) to all working parents of children up to 12 years and carers with dependent relatives.

The proposed non-legislative measures include:

  • ensuring protection against discrimination and dismissal for parents (including pregnant women and workers coming back from a leave) and carers;
  • encouraging a gender-balanced use of family-related leave and flexible working arrangements;
  • making better use of EU funds to improve long-term and childcare services;
  • removing economic disincentives for second earners that prevent women from accessing the labour market or working full time.

See also: parental leave; framework agreements; women in the labour market; maternity leave; part-time work; pregnancy and maternity; social pillar.


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