Social Council debates new maternity provisions

In October 2010, the European Parliament proposed that minimum maternity leave be extended to 20 weeks. The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council met in December 2010 to debate this and other proposed amendments to the pregnant workers’ directive. It did not endorse the 20 weeks proposal, but did approve extending maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks. This extension was first proposed by the European Commission in 2008, along with other maternity rights.

Commission’s original proposal

The European Commission first issued a proposal to amend the pregnant workers’ directive on 3 October 2008 (COM (2008) 637). It proposed to extend the minimum length of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, of which at least six weeks must be taken after childbirth. Other elements of the proposal were:

  • the principle of full pay during the 18 weeks, with a possibility for Member States to introduce a ceiling that must not be below sickness pay. Workers would receive 100% remuneration during the first six weeks of maternity leave. For the remainder of the leave, the Commission recommended granting full pay, with the amount paid to be no less than sick pay;
  • the right for women returning from maternity leave or already on maternity leave to ask their employer to adapt their working patterns and hours;
  • the right to return to the same job or an equivalent post.

The proposal forms part of the Commission’s work-life balance package, which aims to contribute to a better reconciliation of work, private and family life.

European Parliament first reading

The European Parliament gave the text a first reading on 20 October 2010, at which it voted in favour of extending minimum maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks with full pay, with some flexibility for countries which already have a form of family-related leave. For example, when family-related leave is available at national level, the last four weeks of the 20 may be regarded as maternity leave and must be paid at least at 75% of salary.

The Parliament also strengthened the pay provisions, stating that workers on maternity leave must be paid their full salary, which must be 100% of their last monthly salary or their average monthly salary.

Furthermore, the Parliament strengthened some of the legal provisions of the proposal, for example stating that workers must not be obliged to perform night work or work overtime during the 10 weeks prior to childbirth, during the remainder of the pregnancy in cases where the mother or the unborn child have health problems, and during the entire period of breastfeeding.

Commission’s policy debate

Following the European Parliament’s first reading of the text, the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council, which met on 6–7 December 2010, held a policy debate on the proposal, at which a ‘very large majority’ of ministers considered that the Parliament’s amendments, notably the requested extension of the minimum maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay, did not constitute an appropriate basis for negotiations. They expressed concerns about the cost implications and emphasised that a directive should set minimum standards only, while respecting the principle of subsidiarity and the diversity of situations in the different Member States. However, many ministers were open to the idea of including a Passerelle Clause in the text, which would allow Member States to take into account forms of leave other than maternity leave offered to the mother, as long as they fulfilled certain conditions.

Concluding the debate, the Council Presidency stated that the Commission’s original proposal to extend maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks could be a more acceptable basis for a compromise than the European Parliament’s amendments. It also stressed the need to examine this issue carefully, in conjunction with the social partners, in order to achieve a ‘balanced outcome’. The matter will be considered over the coming weeks and over the next two Council Presidencies, which will be held by Hungary and Poland.

Views of the social partners

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which has been demanding fully paid maternity leave of at least 18 weeks, without any ceiling at national level, expressed mixed feelings about the European Parliament vote. ETUC General Secretary John Monks stated: ‘Although we welcome stronger protection for pregnant workers and working mothers, we are disappointed that the vote in the European Parliament on the Maternity Protection Directive did not support fully paid maternity leave in all Member States.’

The ETUC urged the Belgian Presidency of the Council to deal with this issue as a matter of priority. According to John Monks: ‘Working mothers in Europe have been waiting a long time for an improvement of European maternity leave protection. The Council must ensure that they have not waited in vain.’

For the employers, in a position paper (132Kb PDF) on the Commission’s 2008 proposal, BUSINESSEUROPE stated that European companies do not believe it is necessary to amend the directive, and that improvements in work–life balance, including maternity protection, will not be best achieved with further legislation: ‘There is no proof that the current minimum does not guarantee the health and safety of pregnant and breastfeeding workers, particularly since many other provisions exist in the directive to guarantee this.’ It states further that extending maternity leave rights at EU level in a way that is overly restrictive for companies would actually be detrimental to women’s employment opportunities.

Commentary

The modernisation of the pregnant workers’ directive is a key task for the countries due to hold the Presidency of the European Council during 2011 – Hungary and Poland. There are obviously differing views on both the length of maternity leave and maternity pay. There are also more fundamental differences of opinion, as can be seen above, between the social partners, with the ETUC wanting an extension of maternity leave and full remuneration throughout the leave, while BUSINESSEUROPE believes that no change to the current regulation is necessary.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

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