Government introduces pregnancy and maternity leave scheme for self-employed

In August 2007, the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment resolved the impasse related to the public pregnancy and maternity leave scheme by deciding to establish such a scheme for self-employed individuals. The minister’s decision comes despite a court ruling in July that the Dutch state does not have to establish such a scheme. The Dutch Trade Union Federation, which was one of the parties in the court case, is in full agreement with the minister’s decision.

In August 2007, the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, Piet Hein Donner, announced his plan to introduce a public pregnancy and maternity leave scheme for self-employed individuals. The women involved will each be awarded the right to 16 weeks of benefits, depending on their earnings. The benefits will at least equal the statutory minimum wage, which currently stands at €1,317 gross a month, and will be financed from public funds.

Out of step with EU regulations

The minister’s decision resolves an impasse which developed when, on 25 July 2007, the court ruled that the Dutch state did not have to establish a public maternity leave scheme for pregnant self-employed women and women who assist their self-employed partners (NL0707059I). This ruling emerged following proceedings initiated jointly by the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV) and the Clara Wichmann Institute (Clara Wichmann Instituut). According to the court, the absence of a public scheme in this regard does not contravene international treaties. Based on European legislation, the Netherlands is not obliged to establish a public pregnancy and maternity benefit for self-employed individuals in the same way that it is for employees.

FNV considered lodging an appeal against the court decision and continued to exert political pressure. Several motions were submitted in the Dutch House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal) requesting Minister Donner to consider the option of a public pregnancy and maternity leave scheme for self-employed individuals. Not having such a scheme places the Netherlands out of step with the rest of Europe. FNV continued to highlight that the Netherlands was the only country out of all 27 EU Member States without a public scheme in place for self-employed women in relation to providing an income guarantee during pregnancy and maternity leave.

Benefit for self-employed workers previously abolished

Up to August 2004, self-employed individuals were eligible by right to pregnancy and maternity leave of 16 weeks, during which period they received benefits equal to the minimum wage. However, this arrangement was scrapped following the abolition of the Occupational Disability Insurance (Self-Employed Workers) Act (Wet Arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering Zelfstandigen, WAZ) (NL0512104F). The decision to abolish the WAZ was at the time supported by FNV, the Platform for Self-Employed Workers (Platform Zelfstandige Ondernemers, PZO) and the Dutch Federation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (Midden- en Kleinbedrijf Nederland, MKB-Nederland). The WAZ premiums were considered overly high for the benefit of 70% of the minimum wage after a qualifying period of one year.

FNV did at the time call for replacement of the WAZ with another public scheme, rather than leaving it to the private market. Self-employed individuals are expected to insure themselves against the risk of illness and/or occupational disability. They could also set aside money to tide themselves over during periods when they are prevented from participating in the labour market due to illness, occupational disability or pregnancy.

Low level of private occupational disability insurance

The absence of a public scheme for pregnancy and maternity leave for self-employed individuals does not necessarily mean that pregnant self-employed women are unfamiliar with privately regulated leave provisions or other schemes. Nonetheless, the problem is that half of all self-employed women do not have private occupational disability insurance, irrespective of whether such schemes include pregnancy and maternity leave provisions. At least under the newly proposed public scheme, women will be entitled to benefits of a level equal to the statutory minimum wage for a 16-week period.

Monique Aerts, Astri and Marianne Grünell, Hugo Sinzheimer Institute (HSI)

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