Maternity leave is a period of time taken off work by an expectant mother to cover the birth of her child, and this may be with pay. The leave period commences some time before the birth and ends some weeks afterwards, when the mother returns to work.
Article 8 of Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992 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 (OJ L348/1) stipulates: ‘Member States shall take the necessary measures to ensure that [such] workers… are entitled to a continuous period of maternity leave of at least 14 weeks allocated before and/or after confinement in accordance with national legislation and/or practice’. The maternity leave must include compulsory leave of at least two weeks allocated before and/or after the birth in accordance with national legislation and/or practice. The Directive also provides that women workers are protected against dismissal during the ‘period from the beginning of their pregnancy to the end of the maternity leave referred to in Article 8(1), save in exceptional circumstances not connected with their condition which are permitted under national legislation and/or practice…’ (Article 10(1)).
In 2008, the European Commission issued a proposal to update the 1992 Directive, aimed at improving the health and safety of pregnant workers. It proposed increasing the minimum period of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, with at least six weeks to be compulsory after the birth. The European Parliament, on its first reading of the text, proposed extending the maternity leave period further, to 20 weeks, and added two weeks of paternity leave under the same conditions as maternity leave. It also suggested further measures to ensure appropriate working conditions for pregnant workers and for those who return to work after having given birth. However, after this first reading, in October 2010, the text reached an impasse and on 1 July 2015, the Commission withdrew the proposal.
At the same time, it launched a new initiative on work–life balance, in which it stated that it aimed to take a broader approach to issues surrounding maternity. Most recently, in April 2017, the Commission presented a proposal for a Directive on work–life balance which included initiatives of both legislative and non-legislative nature. The main points include the enhancement of the existing parental leave scheme by facilitating uptake by women and men with new measures on payment, flexibility and non-transferability. In addition, it introduced a proposal for carers' leave and paternity leave and the availability of flexible working arrangements for all working parents of children up to the age of 12 and carers with dependent relatives.