Mixed welcome for extra maternity leave

New proposals extending maternity leave to 20 weeks and introducing two weeks of paternity leave, which have been approved by the European Parliament, have sparked a heated debate in Malta. Employers say implementing such a measure will damage the economy, and the government reaction has been muted, with both questioning the timing of such a proposal. Partit Laburista, the opposition party, supports the measure, and is urging the government to help employers fund it.

Background

Maltese law already provides for the European minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave, paid in full by employers. The employers’ associations dislike the new proposal because they say it would, according to a study conducted by the Malta Business Bureau (MBB), cost the employers an extra €12 million annually. MBB says this would damage the competitiveness of the Maltese economy and accuses the European Parliament of being ‘detached from the signs of time’. The bureau also fears it could be fatal for Maltese small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which play a vital role in the national economy.

Employers also point out that firms may be less likely to hire women because of this extra cost. Indeed, representatives of the employers’ associations maintain that adopting this proposal would widen the gender wage gap, and may even reinforce the glass ceiling.

Reactions

The Maltese government’s two representatives in the European Parliament expressed their concern about this measure, stating that the extension was originally supposed to be 18 and not 20 weeks. However, although they voted against many of the proposals, in the final vote on the entire package they voted in favour. Simon Busuttil, one of the members, said: ‘Although I opposed certain aspects, I do favour an equitable extension of maternity leave.’ Malta’s Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi, said that while some countries granted more maternity leave, it was not paid in full as is the case in Malta. He suggested that any measures aimed at improving the work–family balance should be applied in a uniform manner among the EU Member States.

The main opposition party, the Labour Party (PL), backs the proposal. Professor Scicluna, a PL representative in the European Parliament, says implementing it would cost the employers €5 million annually, not the €12 million estimated by employers. PL leader Joseph Muscat says the government could afford this and has urged the government to share part of the cost with employers. The other political party, Alternattiva Demokratika (AD), which has no representation in the European Parliament, welcomed the proposal, saying it would greatly lessen the stress of family life.

The Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations (MCWO) expressed its disappointment at the government’s reaction, saying that this subsidy should be seen as an investment in human resources rather than a cost. The confederation said it might encourage more women to work as, currently, Malta has the lowest proportion of women in the labour market of all EU Member States, with a dependency ratio of 46% of the Maltese population.

Commentary

Whenever the issue of the extension of maternity and paternity leave is raised, the employers and the government always tend to say it is an inappropriate time to implement it. This time around the reaction was no different. What is rather perplexing is the lack of any response from the trade unions.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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