European social partners consulted on measures to improve work–life balance

The European Commission has been consulting with the European social partners on measures aimed at reconciling professional, private and family life. While the employer organisations regard EU legislation in this field as adequate and sufficient, the trade unions have requested more comprehensive actions to improve the reconciliation of professional, private and family life.

On 12 October 2006, the European Commission launched the first-stage consultation (65.4Kb PDF) of the European social partners on the reconciliation of professional, private and family life, following the procedure laid down in article 138 of the EC Treaty. The Commission emphasises that European institutions and the European social partners have constantly called for EU-level policies to improve work–life balance. Very few EU Member States have achieved the targets in terms of childcare facilities set at the 2002 Barcelona Summit and summarised in the Presidency conclusions (299Kb PDF). Moreover, reconciliation issues are addressed in the new Guideline 18 (59.7Kb PDF) of the Integrated guidelines for growth and jobs (2005–2008) (362Kb PDF), in the European pact for gender equality (253Kb PDF) approved by the March 2006 European Council (7775/1/06 REV 1, Annex II), and in the Roadmap for equality between women and men 2006–2010 (211Kb PDF). The European Parliament has consistently called for improvements to the existing legislation and adopted a resolution on reconciling professional, family and private lives (115Kb PDF) in 2004.

Moreover, the European social partners negotiated relevant framework agreements on parental leave (Council Directive 96/34/EC) and part-time work (Council Directive 97/81/EC). They also concluded an autonomous agreement on telework (107Kb PDF) and adopted a Framework of actions on gender equality (110Kb PDF). The four parties involved comprised: the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Industrial and Employers’ Confederation of Europe (Union des industries des pays de la Communauté Européenne, UNICE), the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (Union Européenne de l’artisanat et des petites et moyennes enterprises, UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP).

Further action to improve work–life balance

The European Commission has asked for the views of the European social partners on the need for further actions to improve work–life balance, including areas and means for improvement, modification of Community legislation, and the most effective balance between costs and benefits.

The Commission’s consultation paper considers that some provisions on maternity and parental leave may need to be revised in light of experiences with their implementation. In addition, the Commission emphasises that Member States with wide-ranging policies, such as Denmark, France, Finland and Sweden, show both higher fertility rates and higher female employment rates.

Moreover, the Commission considers it essential to ensure that the increasing educational attainment of women is reflected in their qualitative participation in the labour market and in a more equal distribution of care responsibilities. In this regard, possible ways have been suggested to encourage fathers to avail of parental leave, which include the introduction of more flexible forms of leave and of periods designated exclusively for fathers. The consultation paper puts forward the adaptation of working patterns and use of new technologies as ways to improve the reconciliation of work, private and family lives.

Social partner response

UNICE (Position paper 23 November 2006 (47.7Kb PDF)) and UEAPME (Position paper 20 November 2006 (217Kb PDF)) concludes that the current legislation represents an adequate and sufficient framework at EU level. UNICE emphasises that any modification to the framework agreement on parental leave can only be carried out by the signatory parties. UEAPME stresses the need for improved implementation at national level, taking into account the situation of all workers and companies. CEEP (Position paper 4 December 2006) calls on the Commission to respect the autonomy of the social partners to review agreements made under article 139 of the EC Treaty and to negotiate measures aimed at improving work–life balance. CEEP questions the timing, approach and content of the consultation in the context of ongoing implementation of the framework of action on gender equality. All three employer organisations highlight the importance of the success of the framework of actions on gender equality for initiatives in the field of work–life balance, emphasising that specific strategies to achieve this must be put in place in Member States at national, sectoral and particularly company level.

The ETUC position on the reconciliation measures welcomes the consultation as a response to the challenge of demographic ageing. ETUC calls for various actions by EU institutions and/or European social partners, such as:

  • Revision of the Maternity Directive (Council Directive 92/85/EC) should strengthen the protection of pregnant workers.
  • Parental leave entitlement should be extended from three months to six months and a part of the entitlement should be non-transferable. Payment should be ensured through social security or tax arrangements. The right to parental leave for urgent care needs should be improved, for example to care for sick children or other family dependents. The directive should be reviewed and extended with regard to paternity leave and leave for adoption purposes.
  • A new Lisbon target relating to the care of older people should be developed.
  • Working time policies should provide workers with genuine options to combine a full-time job with family responsibilities. The right to reduce or increase individual working hours should be further elaborated. While maximum working hours and minimum protection should be regulated by EU legislation, there is enormous scope for the provision of flexible working patterns at sectoral or company level.

Commentary

The persistence of gender inequality, the lack of sufficient childcare options or possibilities to care for older family members, and the current demographic developments require a comprehensive political response. Although the European social partners negotiated several relevant framework agreements and the framework of actions on gender equality, they cannot deal with structural societal changes single-handedly. The Commission concludes that those Member States with far-reaching policies, which have resulted in both higher female employment rates and birth rates in those countries, should lead the way towards improved reconciliation between professional, private and family life across Europe.

Anni Weiler, AWWW GmbH ArbeitsWelt – Working World

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