Family-related leave and industrial relations

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Date of Publication: 15 September 2004

Antoine Math, Christèle Meilland

The various forms of family-related leave are a central issue in the widespread attempts across Europe to create a better work-life balance. Such leave has received increasing attention over recent years from both legislators (often prompted by EU Directives) and the social partners. This study looks at the current position in 19 EU Member States and Norway in terms of legislation and collective bargaining on the key forms of family-related leave - maternity leave, paternity leave, parental leave and leave for urgent family reasons - and the views of trade unions and employers on the matter. It also assesses the impact of family-related leave and its effects on gender equality.

This comparative study - based largely on the contributions of the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) national centres in 19 EU Member States (the 'old' EU 15, plus Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) and Norway - deals with family-related leave, and especially leave relating to parenthood, and its relationship with industrial relations. It also updates an EIRO study conducted in 1997 on the impact of the 1996 EU parental leave Directive on collective bargaining and other developments in the EU 15 and Norway (TN9801201S). The current study goes further than just the provisions of the Directive and parental leave, also dealing with all the other categories of family-related leave available to employees, as well as the issue of leave flexibility (eg the possibility of dividing the leave into separate blocks or taking it on a part-time basis). It also examines the role of collective bargaining in developing these types of leave, as well as the position of the social partners.

Parental leave is a major part of 'work-life balance' or 'reconciliation of work and family life' measures. Leave schemes may be a way for parents - especially mothers - to avoid the time devoted to the care and education of their children being an obstacle to their careers. Originally developed as support for parents to make it easier for them to continue working or to get back into employment after a break, parental leave can also be a means of fostering gender equality. However, leave may also worsen the difficulties faced by some parents, mainly mothers, in trying to keep a job or in returning to employment. Leave schemes may also accentuate 'career discontinuity', which is most prevalent among women. In such cases, parental leave might, ultimately, undermine rather than promote gender equality at work, at home and in the family by reinforcing women taking on a greater share of parenting duties. This study also aims to look at how men and women use family-related leave opportunities and the extent to which rules governing leave potentially promote differing use by men and women.

All the countries studied have legal provisions for parental leave. Where collectively-agreed provisions exist, they generally supplement statutory provisions. Therefore, we first set out the statutory framework before moving on to examine the role of collective bargaining. The study:

  • summarises developments in family-related leave across Europe since the early 1990s, looking at the role played by EU initiatives and developments in public family-related leave spending;
  • outlines the current statutory family-related leave provisions in the 20 countries considered relating to maternity leave (eligibility criteria, duration and compensation), paternity leave (entitlement and duration), parental leave (eligibility and guaranteed return to employment, age limits for children and adoption, breaking up and spreading leave, part-time work and flexibility, and sharing leave between parents) and leave for urgent family reasons (short- and long-term);
  • examines collective bargaining on family-related leave, detailing the extent, level and content of such bargaining;
  • looks at the social partners' positions in this area; and
  • assesses the impact of family-related leave and its effect on gender equality, focusing on variations in the take-up of such leave among countries and between women and men, and the likely explanations for these variations.

Comparative tables setting out summary details of the statutory provisions on the main forms of family-related leave in the countries are provided in a separate annex to this study - available (in Word format) on the EIROnline website here.

Numerous developments since early 1990s

Across Europe, many changes have occurred in the area of family-related leave since the early 1990s. EU initiatives in this area have accompanied or driven these developments.

Role played by EU initiatives

An EU Council Recommendation (92/241/EEC) on childcare of 31 March 1992 encouraged Member States to 'adopt and/or encourage measures to take realistic account of women's increased participation in the labour force, such as special leave to enable all employed parents who so wish, both men and women, to discharge effectively their working, educational and family responsibilities with, inter alia flexibility in how leave may be taken.' Member States should also take and/or encourage initiatives related to 'the sharing of occupational, family and upbringing responsibilities arising from the care of children between women and men'.

The 1992 Council Recommendation was not binding, but there have been binding EU standards in this area that have played a major role in the developments that have taken place in specific countries. Two Directives set out such mandatory norms: Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding; and Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave concluded by UNICE, CEEP and the ETUC (extended to the UK by Directive 97/75/EC). These Directives have driven change by requiring Member States to bring their national legislation into compliance.

In order to comply with the requirements of the 1992 Directive, some Member States had to amend their maternity leave legislation in the first half of the 1990s, for instance Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Since this initial implementation phase, there have been no significant changes in the 'old' EU driven by a need to bring national legislation into line with this Directive. However, specific countries might still have to make further amendments to their legislation to bring it fully into compliance with the Directive: for example, it has been argued that Austrian provisions on dismissal protection for pregnant women need to be amended (the same applies to some points of the Spanish legislation).

In order to comply with the 1996 parental leave Directive, Member States such as Austria, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and the UK had to amend their national legislation, and provisions in all of the 'old' EU 15 are now regarded as being in compliance with the Directive. Nevertheless, Denmark does not yet guarantee leave for all employees for unforeseeable reasons arising from a family emergency, as required by the Directive. In Denmark, this provision has been implemented by collective agreements rather than law (see below under 'Collective bargaining and family-related leave') and, according to the European Commission, some 30% of employees in the private sector are not covered by such agreements.

Turning to the post-May 2004 new Member States considered, in Slovenia the influence of EU norms can be seen in recent reforms to parental leave legislation. For example, a reform introduced in 2001 enhanced the entitlement of fathers to leave, an amendment in 2002 strengthened dismissal protection for parents on leave, and a further change in 2003 abolished all citizenship criteria for leave entitlement. A clear impact is also reported from Slovakia, but by contrast EU standards do not seem to have influenced recent legislative changes in either Poland or Hungary.

In addition to the binding legal standards introduced by the above Directives, it is possible that the European employment strategy (EES) launched at the Luxembourg European Council in November 1997 (EU9711168F) might also have driven reform. Parental leave has been dealt with in the EES - prior to 2003 this was explicit, promoting such leave under the heading 'reconciling work and family life', while the 2003 EU employment guidelines stress more generally the reconciliation of work and private life and encourage the 'sharing of family and professional responsibilities'- and it might be considered that this has had an impact on the development of statutory and collectively agreed leave provisions. The mandatory production by Member States of annual National Action Plans on employment in response to the EU guidelines might have provided an impetus in this respect. However, reports from the EIRO national centres indicate that the EES has essentially had no impact on either national debates or the changes made to existing provisions. Nevertheless, although no direct impact is reported from the Netherlands and UK, it is stressed from these countries that the thrust of the EES matches the policies developed by national governments. For example, the EES appears to correspond exactly to the view shared by both the Dutch government and Dutch employers that more women should enter the workforce and remain in employment longer.

Developments in public family-related leave spending

The Eurostat database on social protection expenditure (SESPROS) enables an assessment of developments in public spending on benefits designed to provide compensation during family-related leave (maternity and parental leave). The available data cover the old 15 Member States except the Netherlands, plus Norway, for the period 1990 to 2000 - see table 1 below. The indicator used is the level of social benefits covering family-related leave (per child under 20, as a percentage of net national per capita income). As indicated by table 1, in 2000, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark posted the highest levels of spending on family-related leave benefits (as a proportion of per capita income). They were followed by Austria, France, Greece and Germany, which were all slightly above the EU average. Spending on benefits for maternity and parental leave was much lower (and below average) in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Lastly, the UK and Ireland provided the lowest level of support in 2000.

During the 1990s, levels of family-related leave expenditure in the Member States did not really seem to converge, and the average spending level appears to have dipped slightly. Spending dropped off significantly in Sweden and in Finland. In Denmark, expenditure, which climbed sharply in 1994 and 1995 with the implementation of leave initiatives within the framework of a 'job rotation' scheme, subsequently fell sharply because of the restrictions applied to this provision. In Austria too, spending, which had initially risen sharply, fell from the mid-1990s.

At the other end of the scale, there was a significant increase in benefits in the 1990s in Norway, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Italy, with the three southern European countries starting from a very low point. There was also a significant rise in France although it was concentrated over a short period, reflecting a change in eligibility rules - parental leave benefit (allocation parentale d’éducation) was extended in 1994 to include parents with two children (with at least one aged under three) taking leave from employment, and to parents working on a part-time basis. Prior to this change, this benefit had only been available to parents of at least three children taking a break from employment. It does not appear that there was any very major change in expenditure levels in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Greece, Ireland and the UK between 1990 and 2000.

Table 1. Benefits for maternity leave (allowances and one-off payments) and parental leave, per child (aged under 20) as % of net national per capita income, EU 15 and Norway, 1990-2000
. 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 % variation 1990-2000* % variation 1990-3* % variation 1993-7* % variation 1997-2000
EU15 - - - - - 1.8 1.7 1.6 1.5 1.5 1.5 -15 - -11 -4
Austria 1.9 2.2 3.2 3.5 3.4 3.3 3.2 2.7 2.2 2.0 1.9 -3 80 -23 -30
Belgium 0.7 0.9 0.9 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 14 13 1 0
Denmark 2.4 2.4 2.5 2.8 4.1 4.4 3.6 3.0 2.7 2.7 2.6 8 15 6 -12
Finland 5.2 6.6 7.7 7.4 6.5 5.6 4.3 3.8 3.7 3.5 3.3 -37 41 -48 -14
France 1.3 1.4 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.5 1.7 1.9 1.9 1.9 1.9 40 1 41 -2
Germany - 1.7 1.9 1.9 1.8 1.8 1.7 1.8 1.7 1.6 1.6 -7 9 -6 -9
Greece 1.6 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.4 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.7 1.7 9 -6 3 11
Ireland 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 1 -5 9 -2
Italy 0.5 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.7 44 27 3 10
Luxembourg 2.1 2.1 2.2 2.6 3.0 2.9 2.9 2.8 2.6 2.9 3.7 75 24 7 32
Norway 1.8 2.2 2.4 2.7 3.2 3.2 3.1 3.0 3.4 3.9 3.6 99 48 11 21
Portugal 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.7 76 11 15 38
Spain 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.7 163 18 81 23
Sweden - - - 5.2 4.6 4.1 3.1 2.7 2.7 2.7 2.7 -48 - -48 -1
UK 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.4 -19 8 -34 14

* Or starting from the most recent available year (1995 for EU 15, 1991 for Germany, 1993 for Sweden)

Note: figures for individual types of benefits in the Netherlands do not appear to be available in the SESPROS database.

Source: Eurostat SESPROS database.

These changes in welfare spending for family-related leave do not tell the whole story and do not give a full picture of all the changes that have been made to this type of leave. Improvements might have been made to leave in terms of compensation, duration, eligibility criteria or compatibility with part-time work without any corresponding increase in spending having been reported. Spending may even have decreased due to less frequent or shorter benefit claims. Lastly, many amendments to leave schemes may have no impact on spending, especially where leave is unpaid.

In the next section, we look at the legislative changes that have been made since the early 1990s to each of the four major categories of family-related leave.

Statutory family-related leave provisions

There is a large variety of types of leave open to parents, short and long, paid and unpaid. As far as paid leave is concerned, compensation may be calculated as all or part of the individual’s normal pay or be paid at a flat rate. Compensation may be limited to a period shorter than the actual duration of leave. It may be capped, means-tested or subject to other criteria (such as the number of children or previous employment/service).

Family-related leave is normally broken down into four categories:

  • maternity leave, with compensation generally covering part or all of the mother’s regular wage, often for a period of approximately 15 weeks, some of which are taken prior to the birth of the child;
  • paternity leave, consisting generally of a few days off for fathers immediately following the birth of a child;
  • parental leave consisting of a block of several months to care for a young child, following on from maternity leave. Traditionally, this type of leave has either been unpaid or compensation has, as is the case in Austria and Germany, been a flat-rate benefit. In some northern European countries, it may be a contribution-based social insurance benefit calculated as all or part of the individual’s normal pay; and
  • leave to care for older children in special circumstances- illness, disability, an emergency situation etc.

Under this traditional four-category model, the various types of leave follow each other in chronological order based on the age of the child. This model is not always very conducive to analysis and comparison since actual provisions may tend to deviate from it. The boundaries between these different types of leave have tended to blur and various categories of leave may overlap or be, at least partially, interchangeable. Very long maternity leave, as in the UK (up to 52 weeks) functions de facto like parental leave in other countries. Alternatively, parental leave may, as is the case in Finland, constitute an extension of maternity or paternity leave, with both being paid in the same way as wage compensation, or be quite separate when it is unpaid, as in Ireland. The distinction between maternity and paternity leave also tends to be blurred in some countries, especially in the case of post-natal leave. Parental leave also tends to be no longer restricted to infants. It may often be taken in an increasingly flexible and staggered fashion and long after maternity or paternity leave, when the child is older, or when adopting a child. It may also function as leave to care for a sick child. Lastly, there are also types of leave that do not fit into any of the four pre-determined traditional categories. For example, since 2000, grandparents in Portugal have been able to take advantage of 30 days of paid leave following the birth of a grandchild whose mother or father is under the age of 16 and living in the grandparent’s home (PT9905147F).

Below we outline and compare the four traditional categories of leave, which remains the prevailing model. However, in order fully to understand the complete picture of parental leave, it is important to keep in mind that the whole range of provisions in a particular country may be combined, shared between parents or follow on from one another chronologically.

Statutory maternity leave

The 1992 EU maternity Directive enhances the employment protection of pregnant women and women who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding and guarantees a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave - see box below. For several countries, this Directive required changes to national legislation, which were undertaken in the first half of the 1990s - examples were Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Since the mid-1990s, maternity entitlement in many countries has been enhanced, but not as a result of the Directive.

EU maternity Directive

Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding (10th individual Directive within the meaning of section 16 (1) of Directive 89/391/EEC) sets out the following requirements on maternity leave:

  • workers are entitled to a continuous period of at least 14 weeks maternity leave allocated before or after confinement, in accordance with national practice. This period must include at least two weeks of compulsory maternity leave allocated before or after confinement, in accordance with national practice;
  • pregnant workers have the right to paid time off, in accordance with national legislation and/or practice, for ante-natal examinations, if such examinations cannot take place outside of working hours; and
  • women must be protected from dismissal from the beginning of their pregnancy to the end of their maternity leave. The only exception is if the dismissal is for reasons unconnected to the pregnancy, which are permitted under national law and where the appropriate authority has given its consent. If a worker protected by the Directive is dismissed during period, she has the right to be given the reason in writing.

The Directive had to be implemented in the Member States by 19 October 1994. The Commission issued a report (COM(1999)100 final) on implementation on 15 March 1999.

Sweden and Norway are the only countries that do not have specific maternity leave schemes as such. Of course, mothers are eligible for leave during pregnancy or after the birth of a child, but in the form of parental leave, which may be shared overall by the two parents. Some of the main points of maternity leave schemes are outlined below - table 2 summarises a number of key features.

Table 2. Statutory maternity leave - duration and compensation
Duration (1) Compensation as % of pay
Under 80% Between 80% and 100% 100%
14-15 weeks Belgium . Germany, Slovenia
16-18 weeks Finland (6) Denmark Austria, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain
21 weeks . Italy .
24 weeks Hungary, Ireland, UK (2) UK (3), Slovakia (5), Sweden (4) Norway (4)

(1) For the first child - may be longer for the second and subsequent children (Poland) or the third child (France and Spain); (2) for 20 weeks after the first six weeks; (3) for the first six weeks out of a total 26 paid weeks; (4) no specific maternity leave - mother’s leave is included de facto in the parental leave scheme available to the two parents; (5) compensation as a percentage of income is very low for vast majority of employees because of a very low ceiling on compensation; (6) the compensation level varies, and is actually 100 % for some for some mothers .

Source: EIRO.

Eligibility criteria

Entitlement to statutory maternity leave is generally based on the criteria of being a worker, or having worked for a certain period, or having made contributions or earned a certain amount. In some countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, employees are required to provide proof that they have been employed for longer than the minimum period required. This excludes women working on a part-time basis for very short periods. In the UK, employees are required to show evidence that they have earned more than a minimum required amount to be entitled to benefit.

Entitlement is not identical for all female workers. The rules are often more generous for civil servants, for example in Belgium and Greece. Furthermore, self-employed women are often entitled to less than their counterparts in subordinate employment.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, maternity leave and benefits have been extended to include groups that were previously excluded - for example, in Ireland where the scheme now covers self-employed women, in Italy where those in 'para-subordinate' employment relationships (ie 'economically dependent' workers - IT0207303F) and unstable employment are now eligible, and in Luxembourg where working students are now entitled to maternity benefits and leave.

The 1992 Directive provides for protection against dismissal and, in all countries considered, women on maternity leave are protected and are legally entitled to return to the same or, where impossible, an equivalent job.


Since the mid-1990s, the duration of statutory maternity leave has been extended in Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK.

The length of maternity leave varies greatly from one country to another, from the minimum 14 weeks required under the 1992 Directive in Germany to approximately six months in Hungary, Ireland, Slovakia and the UK. In the UK, ordinary paid maternity leave of 26 weeks may be extended by additional unpaid maternity leave of 26 weeks. Total leave may thus be a whole year.

In several countries, maternity leave is longer for a second or third child or for multiple births. Since the early 1990s, entitlement to leave and maternity benefits for multiple births has been increased in several countries - such as France, Luxembourg and Spain - and in some cases has been widened to include adoption or fostering situations.

Examining the duration of maternity leave in isolation without considering other types of leave can be misleading. This is the case where parental leave has the characteristics of extended maternity leave, particularly when it is paid in the form of compensation as a percentage of pay (or other employment income). The situation in Sweden and Norway, where there is no specific maternity leave, demonstrates that maternity and parental leave cannot necessarily be separated. In Sweden, paid parental leave of 480 days is an entitlement shared by the two parents, and only 60 days cannot be transferred from one parent to another. Consequently, mothers may take a minimum of 60 days and a maximum of 420 days leave. In Norway, parental leave is also a shared entitlement. Of the total leave of 52 weeks, four are reserved for the father and nine for the mother, with all of the remaining 39 weeks capable of being shared. Therefore, the maximum paid leave for women can be as long as 48 weeks.


Since the early 1990s, statutory maternity leave compensation has widely been enhanced, especially in countries that were lagging behind in this area at the beginning of the decade (such as Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK). These improvements have taken the form of relaxations in compensation entitlement criteria, increases in benefit payments or extensions of compensation periods.

In most cases, compensation is paid by sickness insurance or social security funds (or the general unemployment fund in the case of the Netherlands). However, in Ireland, Norway (parental leave), Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden (parental leave) the compensation is paid by the state. In Denmark, employers cover the compensation. Legislation provides for employer top-ups to compensation from sickness insurance funds in Greece, Poland and Germany. In the latter country, the sickness insurance funds make a wage-related payment of up to EUR 13 per day, which employers top up to full pay compensation. In the UK, employers pay the statutory compensation, of which they get back almost 100% through a reduction in subsequent employer social security contributions and other levies.

In all countries examined, at least part of maternity leave is financially compensated as a percentage of the mother's pay (or other employment income). For low wage earners, a minimum compensation level may exist, as in Finland, Ireland and Portugal. Maternity leave compensation in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway (parental leave), Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain is equivalent to 100% of normal pay. However, compensation may sometimes be capped (ie there is a maximum cash amount), as in France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Compensation is slightly lower, but at least 80% of pay, in Denmark, Italy, Slovakia, Sweden (parental leave) and the UK (for the first six weeks of leave only). This compensation is capped in Denmark, Slovakia and Sweden. The cash ceiling is higher than the average wage in Denmark and Sweden, but is very low in Slovakia, at only about half the average wage and slightly above the minimum wage.

In Finland, average compensation stands at between 60% and 70% of pay, but may be as high as 100% for low-wage earners. Compensation is lower in Belgium, Hungary, Ireland and the UK (after the first six weeks of leave).

In almost all countries, compensation covers the entire maternity leave period. However, in Ireland only the first 18 weeks of the maximum maternity leave period of 26 weeks are paid. In the UK, a maximum of 26 weeks are paid, of which six at 90% of pay, with an additional period of 26 weeks unpaid. In Hungary, partial wage compensation is paid only during the weeks of leave - of which there must be at least four - taken prior to the birth of the child. Women are entitled to a flat-rate benefit for the remaining weeks.

In all countries, with the exception of Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal, other types of benefits may either substitute for or top up maternity leave compensation. These benefits may be in the form of allowances paid at or around the birth of a child and during the first few months of the child’s life. They may also take the form of one-off grants, notably a 'maternity premium'. Such benefits may be paid instead of maternity compensation. These are designed for women who are not entitled to normal paid maternity leave because they fail to meet all the eligibility criteria. These types of benefits exist in Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK.

There may also be top-up benefits designed to supplement maternity leave compensation. These exist and are not means-tested in Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia, while they are means-tested in Austria, France, Greece, Poland, Spain and the UK.

Statutory paternity leave

The March 1992 EU Council Recommendation on childcare (see above under 'Role played by EU initiatives') stated that: 'As regards responsibilities arising from the care and upbringing of children, it is recommended that Member States should promote and encourage, with due respect for freedom of the individual, increased participation by men, in order to a achieve a more equal sharing of parental responsibilities between men and women and to enable women to have a more effective role in the labour market.' Entitlement to family-related leave for fathers has been significantly enhanced in many countries since the time of the Recommendation. Post-natal leave, which was traditionally available only to women, now tends to be available to men as well, or to be open to sharing between the two parents. This change has been reflected in the creation or enhancement of specific leave, called paternity leave, available to fathers only on the birth of a child. Legislation on paternity leave available to fathers after the birth of a child or during the first few months of the child’s life has been introduced or upgraded, in particular since the late 1990s, in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

Increased leave entitlement for fathers has not been achieved only through specific paternity leave but also through parental leave designed to be shared more easily by both parents. The paternity leave entitlement studied below must therefore be assessed in conjunction with the parental leave entitlement dealt with in the next section. Some of the main points of paternity leave schemes are outlined below - table 3 summarises a number of key features.

Table 3. Statutory paternity leave schemes
Scheme Country
No leave Austria, Germany, Ireland
Very restricted leave Italy, Poland, Slovakia
2 days Spain, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands
5 days Hungary, Portugal
Around 2 weeks Belgium, Denmark, France, Slovenia (1), Sweden, UK
3 weeks or more Finland, Norway (2), Slovenia (1)

(1) 15 paid days and 75 further unpaid days; (2) no specific paternity leave - paternity leave included de facto in parental leave scheme.

Source: EIRO.


Self-employed men are entitled to paternity leave in only a very few countries and such leave is often available only to fathers in paid employment. However, employees do not have a statutory entitlement to paternity leave in all the countries studied - it does not exist in Austria, Germany and Ireland, though collective agreements may provide for leave (see below under 'Collective bargaining and leave for family-related reasons'). Paternity leave does not exist per se in Norway either, but parental leave of 52 weeks plays the de facto role of both paternity and maternity leave. Both parents must share this leave, of which a minimum of four weeks is reserved for fathers (provided the mother is working). Given that nine weeks are reserved for mothers, fathers may, in theory at least, take up to 43 weeks of parental leave if the mother takes no more than nine weeks at the time of the child’s birth. In addition to their own specific quotas, parents have a maximum of 39 weeks to distribute among themselves.

In Italy, Poland and Slovakia, fathers are not entitled to specific leave but they may, in special circumstances, benefit from maternity leave entitlement in place of the mother. In Slovakia, fathers may take post-natal maternity leave in place of the mother where she is facing long-term illness. In Poland, mothers who have already taken 14 weeks of maternity leave may transfer the remainder to the father, ie two weeks for a first child and four weeks for subsequent children. In Italy, since June 2002, fathers have also been entitled to maternity leave where the mother has died, is severely disabled or has abandoned her child, or the couple has separated or divorced and the father has custody of the child.

In Spain, fathers have, since 1989, been entitled to six weeks’ maternity leave following the birth of a child where the mother has died. Moreover, in cases where both parents are working, women can transfer four of the total 16 weeks of maternity leave to the father. Since 1999, in cases where the mother has made insufficient social contributions for entitlement to maternity benefits, if the fathers has paid contributions he is entitled to benefits for a period of 10 weeks in lieu of the regular 16 weeks of maternity leave. Lastly, where both parents meet eligibility criteria, mothers may transfer 10 weeks of their maternity leave to the father once they have taken the initial six compulsory weeks. It should be noted that, in Spain, in addition to the opportunity to transfer part of maternity leave to fathers, specific employer-funded paternity leave of two days is available.

Specific statutory paternity leave also exists in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. In all the countries where paternity leave does exist, fathers are guaranteed to be able to return to their previous jobs after their leave. In a move to make this type of leave more effective, Portugal is considering making the existing five-day leave compulsory for fathers (and thus for their employers).

Duration and compensation

The duration of statutory paternity leave varies from one country to another. It should be stressed that, in the same way as for maternity leave, looking at the duration of paternity leave in isolation is problematic since paternity leave may be extended through parental leave. In countries with very short paternity leave, this may be offset by the existence of parental leave, thus ultimately providing fathers with significant leave in terms of both duration and compensation.

The duration of paternity leave is limited to two days in Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain. It is five days in Hungary and Portugal and two weeks in Belgium, Denmark, France, Sweden and the UK. Fathers in Slovenia have a right to 15 days of paid leave, which may be extended, on an unpaid basis, by 75 days in the period up until the child is eight years old. This brings Slovenian legislation into line with parental leave provisions in many other EU countries. In Finland, paternity leave is three weeks, which may be extended by up to a further two weeks when fathers also take some parental leave. Lastly, in Norway, paternity leave is a minimum of four weeks (the part of parental leave reserved for fathers).

In Norway, paternity leave appears particularly attractive since fathers' loss of pay may be fully covered for the entire duration of leave. Indeed statutory paternity leave is paid in all countries examined and, in general, loss of pay is entirely or almost entirely covered. Thus, in those countries where paternity leave is limited to a few days, there is no loss of pay - as in Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain - and the compensation is mainly covered by employers. Full pay is also maintained and paid by employers during the first three days of leave in Belgium and France. Beyond the first three days, leave compensation paid by the sickness insurance fund is capped. Income compensation is also capped in Denmark and Sweden. Finland and the UK appear to be the countries where loss of pay is least well compensated.

Statutory parental leave

The parental leave legislation of many EU Member States has been significantly amended since the early 1990s. The 1996 Directive on the issue (see box below) often drove these amendments since it compelled some Member States, such as Ireland and the UK, to introduce this type of leave on top of maternity leave. In short, under the Directive, parental leave is required to be an individual entitlement lasting at least three months following the birth or adoption of a child (in addition to the minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave guaranteed by the pregnant workers Directive). Eligibility criteria relating to length of employment or length of service in a company may not exceed one year. Workers must be able to return to their jobs. The Directive also recommends, although does not make it compulsory, that leave should be flexible, available until the child turns eight, non-transferable from one parent to the other and cover cases of adoption. Provision must also be made for giving workers time off on the grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons.

EU parental leave Directive

Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 gave legal effect to the framework agreement on parental leave concluded in December 1995 by the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The 1996 Directive was subsequently extended to the UK by Directive 97/75/EC. The parental leave Directive lays down the following requirements.

Men and women workers must have an individual, non-transferable right to at least three months' parental leave for childcare purposes (as distinct from maternity leave) after the birth or adoption of a child until a given age of up to eight years to be defined by Member States and/or management and labour. To promote equal opportunities and equal treatment between men and women, the right to parental leave should, in principle, be granted on a non-transferable basis.

The conditions of access and detailed rules governing parental leave are to be defined by national law and/or collective agreement. Such national provisions may:

  • determine whether parental leave is granted on a full-time or part-time basis, in a piecemeal way or in the form of a time-credit system;
  • make entitlement to parental leave subject to a period of work qualification and/or a length of service qualification, which may not exceed one year;
  • adjust conditions of access and detailed rules for applying parental leave to the special circumstances of adoption;
  • establish notice periods to be given by the worker to the employer when exercising the right to parental leave, specifying the beginning and the end of the period of leave;
  • define the circumstances in which an employer, following consultation in accordance with national law, collective agreements and practice, is allowed to postpone the granting of parental leave for justifiable reasons related to the operation of the undertaking - eg where work is of a seasonal nature, where a replacement cannot be found within the notice period, where a significant proportion of the workforce applies for parental leave at the same time, or where a specific function is of strategic importance; and
  • authorise special arrangements to meet the operational and organisational requirements of small undertakings.

Workers must be protected against dismissal on the grounds of applying for or taking parental leave, and have the right to return to the same or (if that is not possible) a similar job and maintain rights previously acquired or in the process of being acquired.

Member States and/or management and labour must take the necessary measures to entitle workers to time off from work on grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons in cases of sickness or accident making their immediate presence indispensable, though Member States and/or management and labour may specify conditions of access and detailed rules and may limit this entitlement to a certain amount of time per year and/or per case.

The Directive had to be implemented in the Member States by 13 June 1998. Its enactment into national law was the subject of a European Commission report dated 19 June 2003 (COM(2003) 358 final).

Some of the main points of statutory parental leave schemes are outlined below.

Eligibility and guaranteed return to employment

The parental leave Directive applies to all workers in both the private and public sectors. Consequently, all employees in the EU are covered by its implementing measures, though with a few exceptions such as: some employees on fixed-term and short-term contracts in Austria, home workers and domestic staff in Italy; and a very small number of occupations in Belgium and Greece. The following information deals only with the rules applicable to the private sector, though it should be noted that there may be significant differences in provisions for public sector employees (as in Austria, Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands).

Entitlement criteria have often been relaxed in recent years, for example in Austria and France. Generally, entitlement to parental leave is subject to a person being in employment. However, a minimum period of previous employment may also be required, as in Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the UK. Where a period of previous employment is not required for entitlement to leave per se, it may be required for entitlement to compensation during leave, as in Spain. In France and Hungary, specific benefits that may be paid during leave, though their rules are distinct from those governing parental leave (see below), are also subject to having a previous employment record.

Rules on eligibility for leave and on eligibility for compensation are separate in those countries where parental leave entitlement is based on labour legislation, but benefit is separate and governed by different legislation, generally that on social protection. This is the case in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Hungary. As a result, in France for example, parents may be eligible for parental leave but not for parental leave benefit, or vice versa. For example, until 2004 French parents were not entitled to benefit when they had only one child, and parental benefit now applies in such cases for a period limited to only six months. Other parents may be eligible for benefit but not for leave, for example, if they do not have one year’s service in the same company or if they have previously been out of work. Other parents still may receive benefit even though they are not on parental leave and are working part time.

To be entitled to take leave, workers are generally required to give a specific amount of notice, ranging from 10 days in Portugal to three months in Belgium. In addition, employers may, in certain circumstances, postpone the start of parental leave for a specific amount of time in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and the UK. Other more restrictive rules governing access to parental leave exist in small companies in Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg.

Under the Directive, workers on parental leave are protected against dismissal and are entitled to return to the same or an equivalent job. However, in practice, the situation can be quite different. In Norway, trade unions, the media and the gender equality ombudsman have reported a growing number of complaints from women who have lost their jobs after leave. In Austria, parents on parental leave until their children reach the age of two are guaranteed the right to return to their previous job. However, if they decide to take advantage of a separate financial incentive and to extend their leave beyond the regular parental leave period to 30 months, they forfeit this guarantee (AT0304201N). In Spain, employees are entitled to return to their previous jobs provided that their parental leave does not exceed one year. If they take longer leave, they are entitled only to return to equivalent employment.

Duration and compensation

The length of statutory parental leave varies from country to country, ranging from a minimum of three months (13 weeks) in the UK and Belgium to three years in Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Spain - see table 4 below. The duration of parental leave has been extended over the past few years in Italy, Spain and Sweden, while Ireland and the UK introduced statutory leave as recently as the late 1990s.

Table 4. Maximum statutory parental leave - full-time leave after birth of first child (not disabled or adopted) taken after (or in lieu of) maternity or paternity leave
Country Duration of paid leave Total leave Upper age limit for child concerned (years)
UK 0 13 weeks (10) 5
Netherlands 0 3 months 8
Portugal 0 3 months 6
Ireland 0 14 weeks 5
Greece 0 3.5 months 3.5
Spain 0 3 years 3
Belgium 3 months (1) 3 months 4
Luxembourg 3 months 3 months 1 or 5 (11)
Italy 6-11 months (2) 6-11 months (2) 3 or 8 (2)
Denmark 32 weeks (3) 40 weeks 1 or 9 (12)
Slovenia 260 days (4) 260 days 8
Norway 43-48 weeks (5) 43-48 weeks (5) 3
Sweden 420 days (6) 420 days (6) 8
Austria 2 years (1) (4) (7) 2 years (7) 2 or 7 (13)
Germany 2 years (1) 3 years 3
Hungary 2 years (8) 3 years 3
Finland 3 years (9) 3 years 3
Slovakia 3 years 3 years 3
France 3 years (1) 3 years 3
Poland 3 years 3 years 4

(1) benefit entitlement rules separate from rules governing leave; (2) 11 months can be shared, with maximum of 6 months for mother and 7 months for father - compensation only if child is under three (unconditional for first six months of leave and means-tested thereafter); (3) can be shared between the two parents; (4) for one parent only; (5) 52 weeks with compensation of 80% of income or 42 weeks with 100% compensation, to be shared by the two parents (nine weeks reserved for mother and four for father) - also acts de facto as maternity and paternity leave, which do not exist; (6) 480 days to be shared between the two parents, of which 60 days are non-transferable - also acts de facto as maternity and paternity leave, which do not exist; (7) benefit may be longer than leave, lasting up to 30 months (36 months when used by both parents); (8) 3 years if a small flat-rate benefit is included; (9) compensation lower after initial 26 weeks shared by the two parents; (10) employers and employees should agree arrangements for taking leave, but minimum 'fall-back' scheme allows up to four weeks’ leave per year; (11) after maternity leave for first parent and up to child’s fifth birthday for the other; (12) to be taken after maternity/paternity leave, but a block of 8 to 13 weeks may be postponed for the period until the child reaches nine years old; (13) to be taken up to age of two, but three months may be held back for period until child reaches seven.

Source : EIRO and European Commission (COM 2003 (358) final).

Statutory parental leave is unpaid in Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK. However, in some of these countries, such as the Netherlands, collectively agreed provisions may offset this absence of statutory compensation. Leave attracts a flat-rate benefit in Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Germany and Poland. The benefit in the two latter countries is geared to low-income households. In the remaining countries, compensation is proportional to loss of pay. Proportional compensation is very low in Italy (set at 30% of normal pay). It stands at between 60% and 70% of pay in Hungary and Finland (where the rate varies according to the employee's wage level). Compensation is between around 80% and 90% in Denmark and Sweden, and can be as high as 100% in Slovenia and Norway - see table 5 below.

Table 5. Compensation for statutory parental leave (full-time leave)
Type of compensation Country
None Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, UK
Flat-rate Means-tested Poland
Lower for higher-income claimants Germany
Not means-tested Austria, Belgium, France, Finland (1) Luxembourg, Slovakia
Proportional to pay Below 80% of pay Finland (2), Hungary, Italy
80%-90% of pay Denmark, Sweden
100% of salary Norway, Slovenia

(1) after initial 26 weeks; (2) initial 26 weeks.

Source : EIRO and European Commission (COM 2003 (358) final).

The various types of statutory parental leave scheme can be classified based on their duration and compensation, as follows.

  • A first group of countries is made up of Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. In these countries, leave is unpaid and either equals or only slightly exceeds the minimum of three months required by the 1996 Directive. In general, these countries have a certain amount of flexibility on the maximum age of the child concerned - eight years old in the Netherlands, six in Portugal, five in Ireland and the UK. However, the relatively short and poorly-compensated parental leave in the UK should be put into perspective - for mothers only - since maternity leave of 52 weeks, of which 26 are paid, is available (see above under 'Statutory maternity leave').
  • The second group, which is very similar to the first, comprises Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg. As in the first group, leave is short in these countries (three months in Belgium and Luxembourg and between six and seven months in Italy) but they differ from the first group in that leave is mainly geared to young children. Compensation is low in Italy and Belgium but is higher in Luxembourg where the parent on leave receives a flat-rate benefit, of EUR 1,693 per month in 2003.
  • The third group is composed of Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. These countries have the longest leave, at two or three years. Leave is generally restricted, with little or no flexibility, to young children up to the age of three. It is designed to be taken by one parent after maternity leave. Arguably, it is implicitly targeted at mothers in as much as the benefit is paid at a flat rate, which encourages the parent with the lowest wage or poorest employment prospects to take the leave. These provisions may especially target women facing difficulties finding employment, as in Poland where benefits are means-tested and in Germany, where compensation is higher for low-income households. Finland also falls into this group, if we exclude the initial 26 weeks of leave shared by the two parents, which attract partial wage compensation, and consider only the subsequent longer parental leave.
  • Spain shares some characteristics with countries in the third group, such as length of leave (three years) and the restriction to young children up to the age of three. However, the absence of compensation brings it closer to the first group.
  • Denmark, Norway and Sweden form a fourth group. Parental leave in these countries attracts compensation as a percentage of pay and is shared by both parents. Total leave stands at eight months in Denmark, one year in Norway and one and a half years in Sweden. The considerably longer leave in Norway and Sweden should be seen in context. In addition to the fact that a proportion of the shared leave may not be transferred to the other parent, parental leave in these countries acts de facto as maternity and paternity leave, which do not exist per se (see above). Finland, which we have placed in the third group, is similar to Norway and Sweden in terms of the initial 26 weeks of parental leave.
  • Slovenia is a case apart. Parental leave is compensated as a proportion of pay, in exactly the same way as maternity leave. The average length of parental leave is almost nine months, which when added to maternity leave brings total leave for mothers up to a maximum of one year. However, it may not be shared by the two parents and appears to be essentially an extension of maternity leave.

Age limit for children and adoption

Traditionally, parental leave has been restricted to caring for young infants and as a result was designed to be taken after maternity leave. The 1996 Directive suggests that leave can be taken in the period up until the child concerned is eight years old. However, few countries allow parents to take parental leave beyond the child’s third or fourth birthday. Leave may be taken up until a child is six in Portugal and eight in Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Sweden, plus Germany with the employer’s consent. A small proportion of parental leave may be saved beyond the normal age limit and used in the period until a child reaches the age of nine in Denmark and seven in Austria. In some countries, age limits for the children in respect of whom parental leave is taken are higher for disabled or sick children - eg Belgium, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

Parental leave schemes are now increasingly being extended to cover adoption. Cases in point are Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. Children's age limits are often higher in these countries for adoption situations.

Breaking up and spreading leave

As stipulated by the 1996 EU Directive, statutory parental leave is tending to become more flexible and for example, may be broken up into a number of separate blocks. However, dividing or staggering leave in this way is not permitted in all the countries studied. In Ireland, the unpaid leave of up to 14 weeks has to be taken all at once. This is also the case for the maximum six-month leave (12 months when claimants are working half time) provided for by law in Luxembourg, and also seems to be the case in Greece where leave is for three-and-a-half months.

At the opposite end of the scale, Sweden offers maximum flexibility. Here, parental leave of 480 days, of which 60 are reserved for each of the parents, may be distributed between the two parents and taken in blocks of as little as one hour until the child reaches the age of eight. In Norway, the paid leave of a maximum of 52 weeks shared by both parents, of which a portion is not transferable, may also readily be taken in blocks until the child’s third birthday.

Elsewhere, the staggering of leave is a lot less flexible. Parents may be required to start their leave at a particular time and may be limited in the number and minimum length of periods that may be taken separately. In Denmark, for instance, paid leave of 32 weeks that may be shared by both parents must be taken after maternity, paternity leave or following the parental leave of the other parent. Only one block of between nine and 13 weeks may be saved up to be taken subsequently in the period before the child’s ninth birthday. In Finland, paid leave of 158 working days that may be shared by the two parents must also be taken immediately after maternity leave.

In Germany, the leave of three years per parent should generally be taken before the child reaches three years old. However, with the employer’s consent, the leave may be broken up into blocks and the third year of leave may be postponed to be taken in the period up until the child turns eight,. In Poland, the individual parental leave of three years to be taken by the child’s fourth birthday may not be taken in more than four blocks. In France, parental leave lasts for one year and may be extended by the same period twice until the child reaches the age of three. In Austria, the maximum leave of two years (full-time leave) may be taken in blocks of three months until the child’s second birthday, and one three-month block may be postponed to be taken in the period up until the child turns seven. The parental leave of three months may be taken in three blocks of one month each until the child reaches the age of four in Belgium and eight in the Netherlands. In Belgium, parents working 80% of normal hours (see below under 'Part-time work and flexibility') are required to take their parental leave of up to 15 months in blocks of no shorter than three months at a time. The leave of up to six or seven months per parent in Italy may be taken in two blocks. In the UK, the 13 weeks of parental leave available until the child turns five must be taken in blocks of at least one week.

In Slovenia, parents who have not taken all their paid parental leave of 260 days by the time their child turns eight may use the corresponding compensation for up to a maximum of five months to cover accommodation and childcare costs.

Part-time work and flexibility

The flexibility recommended by the EU parental leave Directive may be achieved by permitting those taking statutory leave to work part time. The same result can also be obtained, outside the parental leave scheme proper, by entitling parents to reduced working hours or a reorganised work schedule. One of the perceived advantages of both of these options over full-time leave is that they enable parents to remain connected to their jobs.

The possibility of allowing employees taking statutory parental leave to work part time does not exist in Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovenia or the UK. In the case of Hungary, this corresponds to prevailing labour market trends, with part-time employment very uncommon. In Greece and Luxembourg, the combination of parental leave and part-time work is only possible with the consent of employers. In Germany, entitlement to part-time employment within the parental leave scheme is only possible if specific criteria are met: the company must have a workforce of over 15 and the part-time work must be of between 15 and 30 hours per week.

Combining parental leave and part-time employment is a right in Austria (though only for employees with at least three years' service in companies with a workforce of at least 21), Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden. In Sweden, there is great flexibility with regard to part-time work since the 480 days of paid leave, which may be taken up until the child’s eighth birthday, may be divided into blocks of as little as an hour (see above under 'Breaking up and spreading leave'). There are various incentives for parents to take part-time leave in these countries, including the following.

  • Longer leave. Unpaid leave may be increased from three to six months in Portugal and the Netherlands when taken on a part-time basis. Leave is increased from two to four years in Austria where a single parent works part time or where both parents work part time on an alternating basis. In Belgium, full-time leave of three months rises to six months if the parent works 50% of normal hours and to 15 months if the parent works 80% of normal hours. In Luxembourg, leave may be increased from six to 12 months if combined with employment equal to or less than 50% of normal hours. In Spain, parental leave increases from three to six years if the parent concerned works on a part-time basis.
  • A financial incentive for part-time parental leave, to ensure that the employee’s income falls less than proportionally to the reduction in working time. There are no such incentives in countries where compensation for leave is calculated as a proportion of the employee's pay, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They are also absent in Luxembourg, where the flat-rate parental leave benefit is halved if claimants work half time, Belgium, where benefits are also reduced proportionately, and Slovakia, where the flat-rate benefit is much reduced. It is in Austria, France and Germany that the parental leave schemes provide a financial incentive for those taking leave to work part time. In Austria, the normal flat-rate benefit is paid to people on parental leave working part time, as long as their earned income does not exceed a certain level. In Germany, benefits paid to those on parental leave are not necessarily reduced for those working part time, and may even be increased, as their level is based on household income. In France, the flat-rate benefit is cut less than proportionally when recipients work part time - if people on parental leave work 80% of normal hours, they still receive around 65% of the benefit, while if they work 50% or less of normal hours, they still receive around 80% of the benefit (these proportions were increased in 2004).
  • Both parents working part time. In countries where parental leave may not normally be taken simultaneously by both parents, incentives for taking leave on a part-time basis may take the form of allowing both parents to work part time, as in Austria, Germany and Norway.

The second form of flexibility considered here is to allow, outside the framework of the statutory parental leave scheme itself, parents to reduce their working hours or reorganise their work schedule. This may have essentially the same effect as enabling those taking statutory parental leave to work part time. The right to reduce or reorganise their working time is granted by law to parents in Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia and Spain. Employees are generally required to give specific notice to their employers, which may oppose applications in some limited circumstances.

In Spain, parents of children who are under six years of age, or have a disability, are entitled to reduce their working time by between 30% and 50%. In Slovenia, a right to work on a part-time basis is available to all parents with children under the age of three, or 18 in the case of children with health problems. Since 2000, in a move to promote a better work-life balance, parents in France have also been entitled to work part time, and employers can only limit this right in specific restricted circumstances. In these countries, loss of income is not compensated except where working time is reduced within the framework of the parental leave scheme (as is possible in France for children under the age of three).

In Finland, one of the parents is entitled to work part time in order to care for a child until school age, and a financial incentive in the form of a flat-rate benefit at least partially offsets loss of income. In Norway, a 'time account' scheme enables parents to work on a part-time basis without any loss of income for up to 104 weeks, both during and after paid parental leave. In the Netherlands, parents are entitled to reorganise, increase or cut their working time indefinitely and no matter the age of their child, thus enabling them to tailor work, in a flexible way, to meet their family commitments. Parents who shift to part-time work have a guarantee of being able to return to full-time work (thus reassuring those who might otherwise hesitate to take this step).

Since 2003, employers in the UK must consider 'seriously' requests to work flexibly from parents of children up to the age of six or of disabled children under 18.

Sharing leave between parents

While enhanced entitlement to leave for fathers can be achieved through paternity leave (see above), it may also be attained through parental leave that can be shared by the two parents. In some countries, entitlement to parental leave was previously a right awarded to parents as a couple - this was the case in Belgium prior to 1998, for example. However the 1996 parental leave Directive now requires that a minimum individual entitlement for each parent should exist: 'to promote equal opportunities and equal treatment between men and women ... the right to parental leave ... should, in principle, be granted on a non-transferable basis.' There is also a trend towards bolstering the possibilities for the two parents to share leave and some countries have introduced incentives to encourage greater sharing.

A distinction can be made between: countries where parental leave is a right that may be shared by the two parents but where a portion of it cannot be transferred from one parent to the other; and countries where parental leave is an individual right, but where there are restrictions on both parents taking leave at the same time. Entitlement to parental leave is a right that, at least in part, may be shared by the two parents in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway and Sweden. In the remaining countries, it is more of an individual right. However, entitlement may in practice be individual in only a formal sense, because of restrictions giving priority to one parent over the other and/or preventing both parents from taking leave simultaneously, thereby arguably undermining the ability of the two parents to share leave and, in reality, encouraging only the mother to take it. Conversely, in some countries financial incentives and opportunities may be offered to enable both parents to take leave.

In Slovenia, paid leave may be taken by only one parent. In the Netherlands, the leave (three months unpaid) may be taken by only one parent at a time and priority is given to mothers. The same situation applies in Spain, where leave is three years unpaid. In Germany, leave may not be taken simultaneously by both parents, except where both are working part time between 15 and 30 hours per week, and there are no specific incentives to encourage parents to alternate leave. In Luxembourg, their leave (three months paid) must be taken all at once by one parent after maternity leave, but the second parent may take their leave at a later date up until the child’s fifth birthday.

In Austria, leave must be taken by the time the child turns two, by both parents in alternating periods of three months. Since 2002, fathers have had their own entitlement of three months - before then, this possibility was dependent on the mother giving up some of her entitlement. For the remainder of the leave period, priority is still given to the mother. However, in some circumstances, it is possible for both parents to take leave simultaneously. Initially, one month of leave may be taken by both parents at the same time. Then, parents working part time may also take leave simultaneously. Finally, where both parents are alternating periods of part-time work, they are eligible to take their leave until the child turns four. Where both parents alternate taking parental leave, the family receives the flat-rate benefit for up to 36 months instead of 30 months.

In the four Nordic countries covered and Italy, all or part of the leave must be shared by the two parents.

  • In Norway and Sweden, a specific portion of leave cannot be transferred from one parent to the other. This is a type of incentive for the second parent, usually de facto the father, to take leave since if they fail to do so, they forfeit their entitlement and the corresponding high compensation. In Norway, of the maximum leave of 52 weeks that must be taken by the child’s third birthday, four weeks are reserved specifically for the father and nine for the mother, which means that a maximum of 39 weeks may be shared. In Sweden, of the total leave of 480 days to be taken by the child's eighth birthday, 60 days are reserved for each parent. In both of these countries, leave may also be taken simultaneously, on either a full- or part-time basis.
  • In Denmark and Finland, there is no specific portion of paid leave that may not be transferred from one parent to another and the leave may be fully shared. In both these countries, unlike Norway and Sweden, leave must be taken after maternity leave and may not be postponed. In Finland, leave of 158 paid working days may be shared, in its entirety, between the two parents. However, there is an incentive in the form of a 'leave bonus' to encourage fathers to take part of the leave. Fathers sharing parental leave may have their three-week paid paternity leave extended by up to two further weeks. In Denmark too, the 32-week paid leave scheme, which may be shared by the two parents, does not stipulate a specific quota for each parent. However, each parent is entitled to supplementary unpaid leave of eight weeks. In comparison with Sweden and Norway, incentives seems to be much more limited for parents to share leave in Denmark.
  • Italy also provides for a certain amount of leave sharing. It is notable in that the compensation during leave is set as a low proportion of the worker's normal pay (30%) and is available for only a limited period (six months). Parents living together may share 10 months’ leave in the following fashion: each is entitled to a maximum of six months but if fathers opt to take at least three months leave, their entitlement increases to seven months and total leave for the couple rises to 11 months.

Leave for urgent family reasons

The EU parental leave Directive (see box above) gives workers an entitlement to 'time off from work on grounds of force majeure for urgent family reasons in cases of sickness or accident making their immediate presence indispensable', though Member States (and/or management and labour) may 'specify conditions of access and detailed rules and may limit this entitlement to a certain amount of time per year and/or per case'. This provision appears to have stimulated the development of specific leave for family reasons, particularly on the grounds of force majeure or of a sick or disabled child. Leave to care for a child may be very short - a matter of just a few days - for emergencies or short illnesses. Alternatively, it may be relatively long - from several weeks to several years - for more serious illness or disability.

A distinction between long- and short-term leave (as used below) is relatively arbitrary because the various national leave schemes actually represent a continuum in terms of the duration of leave for family reasons. In addition, long-term leave may sometimes be broken into short periods - in Sweden, for example, a paid leave scheme providing for a maximum of 60 days per child, per year, per parent for children under the age of 12 (16 in some cases) is often in practice used in very small blocks.

Short-term leave

Statutory entitlement to short-term leave, in most cases of a few days a year, to care for sick children has been developed, extended or enhanced over the past 10 years in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

Such statutory short-term leave available for emergency situations or children's illness exists in all the countries examined except in Denmark, where such leave exists but has developed through collective bargaining rather than legislation (according to the European Commission, 30% of Danish employees are not entitled to this type of leave as they are not covered by a collective agreement, and this is said to breach the 1996 Directive). In the UK, the law provides a right to 'reasonable' unpaid time off to deal with family emergencies but without defining the amount of time off or the specific criteria for awarding it. It has been left to the courts to decide what constitutes 'reasonableness' in cases of dispute between employers and employees.

Among the other countries considered, short-term leave for urgent family situations varies considerably in terms of its duration and rules.

The length of short-term leave is most often defined in law as a maximum number of days per parent, per year - as in Austria, Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. In some of these countries, leave may be longer for parents with more than one dependent child - this is the case in France, Greece and Norway. Consequently, these latter countries are more in line with a second group, those where maximum leave is defined per child as well as per parent, per year - Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden. Germany has an annual ceiling of leave per parent and Ireland has a multi-year ceiling, with employees entitled to three days leave per child, per parent, per year, but with a limit of five days in each three-year period. The length of leave may also be defined as a maximum number of days per event or situation for which employees are entitled to such leave, as in Finland, the Netherlands and Slovakia.

The maximum length of leave may also be adjusted based on children’s age. Thus, leave is longer when it relates to younger children in Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Slovenia. It may also be longer for lone parents, as in Germany, Norway and Slovakia. In Italy, Norway and Portugal leave may be increased for disabled and hospitalised children.

Statutory short-term leave is unpaid in Finland, France, Greece, Italy and the UK (though collective agreements may provide for payment, as is usually the case in Finland, for instance). Elsewhere, employees receive all or some of their normal pay - compensation is 100% in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.

In some countries, short-term leave intended for the care of children may also be used in other situations not necessarily or directly related to the health of the child. In Norway and Sweden, leave may also be taken when the person who normally cares for the child is ill. In Poland, all employees with children under the age of 14 are entitled to two days’ leave per year, without being required to justify illness or other reason. Polish workers are also entitled to further paid leave of 60 days per year to care for a sick child under the age of 14 (14 days for children over 14 years old and other family members), and parents are also entitled to this leave for all children under eight years of age if they are facing childcare problems in a school or nursery setting. This leave is awarded only where no other family member is able to care for the child. In Greece, employees are entitled to four days off per year to monitor their child’s progress at school.

Longer-term leave

Longer-term leave schemes to care for seriously ill or disabled children, ranging in length from a few weeks to a few years, have been introduced or strengthened over the past few years in Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands. However, they do not exist everywhere, apparently being absent in countries such as Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and the UK. Where such leave exists, it is reserved for clearly-defined disability, chronic illness, serious accident or life-threatening situations involving a relative.

The length of leave varies from between a few months and a year in Austria, France, Spain and Sweden, to over a year in Finland, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia. Leave is unpaid in Ireland and Spain. Compensation takes the form of a (low) flat-rate benefit in France and Hungary, while compensation in Italy and Finland is calculated as a proportion of pay.

Collective bargaining and family-related leave

In the countries examined, parental and family-related leave is, in general, defined by legislative provisions, with collective agreements playing a subsidiary role in most cases - see table 6 below for details. The 1996 EU parental leave Directive has further reinforced this predominance of legislation by requiring Member States to apply its provisions to all private and public sector employees. In the new Member States studies - Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - legislative provisions, inherited from older policies, also play the predominant role. However, collective agreements can have a 'leverage effect' with regard to changes to the law. For example, bargaining plays this role in the UK and Denmark, where collective agreements are important in regulating family-related leave. Bargaining has prompted legislation in a different way in the Netherlands, in that its poor results have led to changes in the law.

It is difficult to categorise countries based on the role played by collective bargaining in the field of family-related leave. However, for the purposes of this study we will put the countries into three broad groups:

  1. countries where collective bargaining has no impact on family-related leave, or very little. Good examples are France (with one reported sectoral exception), Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia. In these countries, the predominant driver of family-related leave provision is the legislative framework, with collective agreements playing a marginal role. Spain also probably falls into this group, but bargaining is starting to have a slightly more important input. In Belgium and Greece, collective bargaining at lower level (sectoral and company) also plays a very limited role, but intersectoral bargaining forms the basis of some aspects of family-related leave. A recent intersectoral agreement in France may boost lower-level bargaining on some relevant issues;
  2. countries where collective agreements supplement the predominantly legislative approach. Legislation defines and structures the leave available to parents but collective bargaining may significantly supplement and enhance it. Countries with this type of approach are Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia and Sweden - though the significance of bargaining varies strongly within this group. It should be noted that in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Ireland, this approach is relatively new, with statutory provisions, especially those relating to parental leave, only comparatively recently enacted. Previously, the only way employees could gain access to family-related leave (except maternity leave) was if provisions existed in the relevant collective agreement. Indeed, collective agreements were used as a model for the subsequent legislative provisions that were put in place. In some of these countries, where legislation is absent on a particular type or aspect of family-related leave, collective agreements may be the only source of regulation - an example is paid paternity leave in Austria and Germany; and
  3. countries where collective bargaining plays a very important role compared with legislation - Denmark and the UK (though bargaining coverage in the former is considerably higher than in the latter). Collectively-agreed provisions supplement legislative provisions or even offset the lack of them. In Denmark, numerous issues relating to work-life balance are regulated by collective agreement, notably emergency leave to care for a sick child, for which no legislative provisions exist. Parental leave is governed by both legislation and collective agreement. In the UK, the government has recently developed a relatively minimal legislative framework for parental leave and for leave on the grounds of force majeure for family-related reasons, with the aim being that employees and employers should negotiate their own arrangements to build on the legislative provisions.

Level and content of bargaining

The level at which collective bargaining on family-related leave takes place varies from one country to the next, usually following the normal contours of national bargaining structures. National-level intersectoral bargaining plays a part in regulation in countries where this bargaining is significant, such as Belgium, Finland, Greece and Ireland (plus France to some extent). Sectoral agreements deal, to varying extents, with family-related leave in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France (one reported case), Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Relevant company or works agreements are reported from many countries - such as Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK - though it is perhaps only in the UK, with its 'voluntarist' and decentralised bargaining system, that the level of bargaining predominates.

Collective bargaining process may deal with various aspects of leave, notably:

  • extending the duration of statutory leave schemes or increasing the age of the children in respect of whom they apply;
  • providing full or partial pay during periods of unpaid statutory leave, or topping up the compensation provided by law, or extending the period of leave that attracts compensation;
  • reducing or reorganising the working time of parents, or allowing them to take family-related leave in a flexible way, such as in separate blocks; and
  • reorganising the jobs or working arrangements of parents with young children.
Table 6. Collective bargaining on family-related leave
Austria Family-related leave is mainly governed by legislation. Nevertheless, a number of sectoral collective agreements (the main bargaining level in Austria) and works agreements (between management and works council at workplace level) lay down rules on how to treat time spent by employees on parental leave when calculating severance pay entitlement, dismissal notice periods, pay grade advancements or other entitlements based on length of service. These agreements may exceed the statutory provisions since, according to law, time spent on parental leave need only be credited towards length of service in calculating notice periods, sick pay entitlement and the duration of annual leave. With regard to paternity leave, in the absence of a statutory scheme, some collective agreements provide for one or two paid days off for the father around the time of a child’s birth.
Belgium The parental leave scheme is based on a framework set by a national intersectoral agreement concluded in 1997 (BE9710217N) by the social partners in the National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR) in line with the 1995 agreement on the issue negotiated by EU-level social partners. However, collective bargaining at sector and company level plays a very limited role in the field of parental and family-related leave. There are a significant number of sectoral and company-level agreements implementing a 'time credit' scheme (based on an intersectoral agreement) (BE0109360F), which enables employees to reduce their working time in various ways and may be used by parents who have exhausted their right to parental leave.
Denmark Entitlement to parental leave (which includes maternity and paternity leave) is regulated by legislation adopted in March 2002 (DK0202104F). Many sectoral and company-level collective agreements enhance compensation during leave, with some, such as that at the Novo Nordisk firm, giving employees full pay during the entire parental leave period. The three-year overall pay settlement for the main private sector bargaining area covered by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) agreed in April 2004 (DK0405102F) establishes a central funding mechanism to finance additional parental leave pay and benefits, whereby the costs are equalised among and within the various sectors, regardless of the gender composition of their workforce (this was a controversial issue in the negotiations). Leave to care for a sick child or for emergencies is dealt with only by collective agreements (mainly at sector level). Agreements started dealing with this issue in the 1980s and subsequently spread, becoming virtually general in 1998 in the LO-DA area (DK9805168F). Now most collective agreements in the private and public sector provide a right to leave on the first day of a child’s sickness, often on full pay. In the public sector, employees also have a right to at least 10 'care days' per child (two days per year until the child reaches five). Some private sector collective agreements provide for three fully-paid care days per year for employees with children aged under 14 years of age. The time can be taken in half-day blocks and need not be justified specifically. However, according to the European Commission, some 30% of employees in the private sector are not covered by agreements on care days. Some collective agreements provide: additional rights to pension contributions for women on maternity leave; or for fathers' pay to be topped during paternity leave.
Finland Collective bargaining - both central incomes policy agreements and the sectoral agreements based on them - generally supplements the statutory provisions on family-related leave. Thus numerous sectoral collective agreements provide for increased compensation for employees on maternity leave and almost all agreements provide for pay during leave to care for a sick child (unpaid according to the law). The 2003-4 incomes policy agreement extended the 'partial care leave' scheme - whereby parents of young children may reduce their working hours - to cover a child's first years at school (FI0212103F).
France Collective agreements play virtually no role in regulating family-related leave, which is mostly the domain of the law. An exception is the banking sector agreement, which extends' employees maternity leave entitlement, with additional paid leave. There are a few cases of company schemes providing for additional benefits, such as full pay for women on maternity leave. 'Time savings account' schemes widely present in collective agreements allow for blocks of time off to be saved up, which may be used for parental leave, part-time work by parents etc. A national intersectoral agreement on gender equality and gender balance in workforce composition was signed in April 2004 by the main employers' organisations and trade union confederations (FR0404104F). One provision is that motherhood should not hinder a woman’s career, and to ensure this, a link with the company must be maintained during the period of maternity leave, while the employer should offer a special interview before and after the period of leave. The agreement lays down a framework for future sector and company-level bargaining on such issues.
Germany Family-related leave issues are generally regulated by legislation. The main exception is paternity leave, which does not exist in law. Numerous collective agreements covering a wide range of sectors provide for paid paternity leave, usually of one or two days. Supplementary provisions on parental leave or time off to care for children are found in only a limited number of collective agreements. An example is the current framework agreement for the retail and mail order industry in the bargaining area of Hessen, which entitles employees in companies with at least 100 employees to parental leave of up to five years - ie two years above the statutory scheme. This parental leave can be divided between the parents if both are employed at the same company. The time spent on the additional parental leave is not included in the employees' length of service, but is counted as 'professional years' (which is of relevance to certain pay grades). The framework collective agreement for metalworking in Northern Baden Württemberg provides up to five days' paid leave for employees who need to care for a sick child aged between eight (the age at which statutory time off rights end) and 14. During parental leave, employees must be given the opportunity to participate in company training and to stand in for other employees for short periods. In companies with at least 500 employees, the agreement entitles employees with at least five years's service to return to a job comparable with that held before leave, if such a job is available.
Greece Family-related leave issues are mainly regulated by legislation. Some statutory provisions result from the contents of National General Collective Agreements for the private sector. For example, the 2000-1 agreement (GR0006175N) increased maternity leave, gave adoptive parents of young children a right to shorter working days, and lengthened paid paternity leave and unpaid leave to deal with illness among dependent family members. Collective bargaining improves on statutory rights only in a few sectors with strong trade union organisations, such as banking.
Hungary Collective bargaining plays no role in regulating family-related leave.
Ireland The law plays the major part in terms of regulating family-related issues. However, some of the legislative provisions are based on national tripartite partnership agreements. The current 2003-6 national agreement, Sustaining Progress (IE0304201N), include a number of provisions relating to parental/family leave, committing the government to: improve various aspects of maternity leave legislation; and strengthen the parental leave scheme (in line with the agreed recommendations from the social partners) in areas such as dividing the leave into separate blocks and increasing the maximum age of the eligible children. Company-level collective agreements on parental leave issues, although encouraged by the legislation, are relatively uncommon. An example of an innovative agreement is that at the Square D electrical plant in County Galway, which allows workers to take their parental leave in the form of a reduced working week.
Italy Legislation (most of which is recent) plays the main role in the regulation of family-related leave, and is often referred to in collective agreements. Bargaining at sector level increasingly provides for employees' maternity/paternity allowances to be topped up by their employers (to 100% of normal pay in the public sector, for example). Sectoral agreements also establish the procedures whereby parents may request advances on their 'end-of-service allowances' (a part of workers' pay which is put aside and paid in a lump sum at the end of the employment relationship) to help meet their expenses during parental leave. The sectors in which bargaining has brought the most significant improvements on the statutory provisions are the public sector and commerce. Thus, public sector workers who take leave to care for sick children - which is unpaid by law - receive full pay for 30 days of such leave per year until the child’s third birthday. Company-level bargaining in this area focuses mainly on flexible arrangements to enable work to be reconciled with childcare - eg conversion of full-time jobs into part-time ones, telework, flexi-time, hours banks, flexible shifts or concentrated work schedules. This is especially common in commerce, and in particular large-scale retail.
Luxembourg Collective bargaining plays no role in regulating family-related leave, though the 1999 law on parental and family leave was based on tripartite talks involving the social partners (LU9903195F).
Netherlands Collective agreements preceded and, to a certain extent, set the scene for subsequent statutory family-related leave legislation (notably the Work and Care Act - NL0202108F), though it was apparently the inadequacy of agreed provisions that prompted the legislation. While the law now plays the main role, agreements (generally sectoral) increasingly improve on its provisions. In 2000 (before the Work and Care Act came into force), additional provisions included: extra maternity leave in 23% of agreements; extra paternity leave - 73%; paid adoption leave - 54%; paid (at least partially) paternal leave - 6%; paid emergency leave - 24%; and paid care leave - 21%. Apart from the various forms of leave in themselves, pay and flexibility in using the leave are thus the primary issues in bargaining. Overall, in 2000 the amount of family-related leave provisions in collective agreements had increased by 5%-10% since 1998. Agreements in the public sector and, within the private sector, larger companies tend to offer substantially more favourable family-related leave provisions.
Norway Legislation plays the primary role in regulating family-related leave, but some collective agreements build on these provisions, especially in terms of compensation (though not the duration of leave). A number of sectoral collective agreements top up statutory parental leave benefit to full pay during all or part of the leave period. Many agreements also provide for pay during the two weeks of statutory unpaid paternity leave. Such arrangements (full pay during parental leave plus paid paternity leave) exist in all nationwide public sector agreements and in some private sector agreements - until recently mainly those in bargaining areas connected to the public sector (ie the semi-public sector and some white-collar agreements). In the 2002 bargaining round, such arrangements were included in more private sector agreements - eg the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave was included in the national agreement for the wholesale and retail trade. Company-level agreements may also include such provisions, but no statistics are available on this point. Many sectoral agreements also include some minor leave rights, such as a day's leave in connection with a child's first day at kindergarten/school.
Poland Collective bargaining plays no role in regulating family-related leave. Indeed labour legislation specifically excludes from the ambit of collective bargaining issues including 'maternity and child-raising leave'.
Portugal Legislation is virtually the only source of regulation of family-related issues. Sectoral collective agreements, if they refer to the matter, generally only repeat the legislative provisions. A few company-level agreements have made minor advances on the statutory norms.
Slovakia Family-related leave entitlements are regulated almost entirely by law, with only a few company-level collective agreements providing additional benefits for parents of new-born children. However, sectoral and company collective agreements often deal with issues related to family responsibilities, such as reduced or rearranged working time for pregnant women and parents (sometimes especially lone parents) in certain circumstances, additional leave for parents of children with special needs, or unpaid leave during school holidays.
Slovenia Collective bargaining plays no role in regulating family-related leave.
Spain Legislation is the main source of regulation of family-related leave. The role of collective bargaining in building on the legislative provisions is underdeveloped. As indicated by a 2003 report from the tripartite Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social, CES) (ES0312102F), the majority of collective agreements make no reference to this area. A second group of agreements make some general statement of support for reconciliation of work and family life and reproduce the provisions of the relevant legislation. The third and smallest group of agreements (including the national sectoral agreement for the chemicals industry) contain provisions that improve on the legislation, sometimes introducing innovative measures (though sometimes involving little more than statements of good intentions). Examples include: improvements in relation to paid maternity and parental leave; shorter or rearranged working time or time off for family reasons; and action to encourage men to exercise their leave rights (eg in the public sector). Central agreements signed by the social partners to provide a framework for lower-level bargaining each year since 2002 (ES0201207F and ES0302204F) include provisions promoting: temporary contracts to replace people on maternity or paternity leave; family care provisions and measures to protect 'high-risk' pregnancies; and adaptation of the provisions of collective agreements on parental leave and maternity cover.
Sweden Family-related leave issues are generally regulated by legislation. The main role of collective bargaining in this area is to top up the statutory parental leave (which includes maternity leave) compensation, which is set at 80% of the employee's pay up to a ceiling (EUR 289,500 a year in 2003). Sectoral and local/company collective agreements (mainly in larger companies) provide for this compensation to be topped up in various ways - a prominent example was a 1999 local agreement at Ericsson (SE9909192F). A 2000 study of 50 such sectoral and local/company agreements by the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Jämställdhetsombudsmannen, JämO) found that they fell into two broad categories: those aimed at topping up the compensation of low-paid workers above 80% of their normal pay, often directed at female employees; and those (which are gender-neutral) that top up the compensation of better-paid employees whose wages exceed the ceiling, and thus suffer a greater proportional pay cut during leave (such agreements often ensure that such workers receive 80% of their full income).
UK Until recently, maternity leave was the sole type of family-related leave regulated by law, with the only regulation of parental, paternity and urgent family leave being provided by collective agreements (usually concluded at company or lower level in the UK) where these existed. The 1999 parental leave legislation encourages employers and employees to negotiate their own arrangements, with a minimum 'fall-back' scheme applying where there is no such agreement. A 2003 study of 30 employers by Incomes Data Services (IDS) found that most had adopted the provisions of the statutory fall-back scheme. However, several had improved on it by extending the maximum age of children to which the right to leave applies (eg ARM) or by offering flexibility over how leave is taken (eg Marks and Spencer and Royal and SunAlliance). The Labour Research Department reported in 2002-3 that, in many workplaces, trade unions had previously negotiated parental leave and pay arrangements for parents that were better than the legal minimum, while some unions, particularly in the public sector, had used the new rights to improve on existing unpaid parental leave provision. Furthermore, some company agreements provide for part of the parental leave to be paid (eg Cadbury and the Housing Corporation). A recent Department of Trade and Industry survey found that, in 11% of workplaces, employers provided parental leave entitlements beyond the statutory minimum. A quarter of these employers gave pay for all or some of this additional parental leave. The most commonly reported additional entitlement was allowing more flexibility over how the leave was taken. On maternity leave, it is relatively common for agreements to allow employees additional unpaid time off after maternity leave, while many employers top up statutory maternity pay to full and/or half pay for all or part of the statutory paid period, or extend the total duration of paid leave beyond the statutory minimum. LRD reported in April 2003 that only a small number of agreements provided for more than a year’s leave. At Ford, maternity leave was increased to 52 weeks on full pay (from 40 weeks) for women with six months’ service from April 2003. On paternity leave, the 2003 IDS study found that some of the 30 companies examined provided longer paid leave (eg three weeks at Interbrew UK) and all had enhanced the statutory pay level - 30% of workplaces had fully paid paternity leave of five days or more. LRD also reports many paternity leave agreements that match or exceed the legislation in terms of duration, with most increasing compensation to full pay. Of 591 collective agreements on paternity leave identified, 86 provide for 10 days or more paid leave. Collective agreements quite commonly provide paid leave for many circumstances relating to 'reasonable' unpaid time off to deal with family emergencies. In May 2002, LRD listed 70 agreements where leave for care of dependents was paid. The most common form of paid dependency leave was five days but 16 employers offered more than this.

Source: EIRO.

Social partners' positions

The extent to which representatives of employers and employees give priority to issues related to the family, gender equality and the reconciliation of work and family life varies according to national realities. The importance attached by the social partners to placing issues such as family-related leave on their agendas varies with the significance of collective bargaining in this area in the country in question.

In most countries, parental and family-related leave issues are not at the heart of industrial relations. Such leave is often, it appears, perceived as more of a family policy issue than a work-related one. The social partners appear more concerned with problems relating to the organisation of work and tend to focus negotiations more on changes to employment conditions and the reduction of working time.

Trade unions frequently stress the importance of a balanced family policy, fostering gender equality both in the home and at work. In many countries, such as France, Germany, Hungary and Sweden, they tend to focus on problems faced by women trying to return to work after a long period of parental leave and the gender equality implications for the labour market. They advocate parental leave schemes that could be shared to a greater extent by the two parents and that do not cut them off totally from their jobs. Unions tend to focus their demands on: entitlements to return to work; the option of part-time work for parent; compensation for maternity, paternity and parental leave; and childcare infrastructure. For example:

  • in Belgium, trade unions would like to see parental leave increased from three to six months and the age cut-off point for the child concerned raised from four to eight years;
  • the Confederation of German Trade Unions (Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) supports an entitlement to part-time work for parents introduced by a 2000 reform but is critical of the fact that companies with a workforce of under 16 are excluded;
  • the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) is advocating the enhancement of legislative provisions on parental leave and is demanding three days’ paid paternity leave (there is no such statutory leave at present);
  • the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral de Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) is demanding that statutory parental leave, currently unpaid, should be compensated; and
  • UK trade unions view the recently introduced unpaid parental leave scheme as merely a first step and are lobbying for the creation of paid parental leave as a way of promoting greater gender equality.

For their part, while many employers' organisations express support for an improved work-life balance, some consider that family and parental leave-related issues are not really their responsibility and that legislation hampers their ability to do business. Consequently, they are often opposed to improvements made to paid leave, which they perceive as creating new costs for companies. Examples of employers' views include the following:

  • in Austria, while employers' bodies have been willing to participate in reforms to enhance the work-life balance, they have reportedly shown reluctance when it comes to supporting their implementation. For example, the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) opposed against the entitlement to part-time work being extended to cover companies with workforces of between 20 and 50;
  • in France, when the government decided in 2001 to extend paternity leave from three days to two weeks (FR0107169F), the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) employers' confederation opposed the initiative. This was because the new scheme was funded by social security funds and therefore mainly from contributions levied on pay, thus going against the employers' aim of limiting these contributions;
  • the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitsgeberverbände, BDA) was critical of a 2000 law reform, particularly newly-enacted provisions entitling employees to work part time, which, in its opinion, will mean very heavy extra costs for companies and restrict the freedom of employers to draw up employment contracts stipulating set working time. BDA has also criticised provisions relating to maternity and parental leave, which, in its view, also mean greater costs for companies and hinder companies in hiring women;
  • the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) is generally opposed to any improvement or increase in family-related leave, and in particular to the introduction of three days' paid paternity leave being demanded by unions. Employers’ organisations see this as just one more cost hindering company competitiveness;
  • Italy's Confindustria employers' confederation considers that recently introduced statutory leave schemes create extra costs for companies and is critical of parental leave for being too long and overly capable of being taken in smaller blocks;
  • in the Netherlands, employers' bodies consider discontinuity in careers caused by taking periods of leave as the major problem with the current system. However, overall they view the current provisions as being quite sufficient;
  • in Spain, some employers’ organisations tend to view parental leave as an external issue, which has an impact on their costs; and
  • UK employers’ organisations are opposed to any new legislation on family-related leave because of costs and the fear of a negative impact on company competitiveness.

Despite these varying positions and perspectives, employers' organisations and trade unions have been able to reach consensus on various aspects of family-related in leave in many countries. As set out in table 6 above, they have been able to conclude agreements on such issues in specific sectors or companies in most countries - such agreements are relatively common in countries such as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK, but less so in Austria, Greece, Ireland and Spain. At national intersectoral level, notable agreements have been reached on: parental leave in Belgium; a central funding mechanism to finance additional parental leave pay and benefits in Denmark; partial leave to care for children in Finland; women's position during and after maternity leave in France; improved maternity and paternity leave rights in Greece; improved maternity and parental leave rights in Ireland; and promoting lower-level bargaining on various aspects of family-related leave in Spain.

Away from the sphere of direct collective bargaining, various other forms of consensus between national social partner organisations are reported from various countries. This often takes place in government consultations over new or amended legislation, In Denmark, the social partners play a significant role in the discussions that take place prior to legislative changes to leave schemes. In Finland, there was relative consensus among the social partners in prior tripartite consultations over the three most recent reforms in this area - to enable parents to share parental leave by allowing both of them to work part time, to extend paternity leave, and to create part-time leave for childcare. In Luxembourg, parental leave and leave for family-related reasons were introduced in 1999 within the framework of the National Action Plan on employment, which was developed on a tripartite basis and involved lengthy negotiations involving the social partners.

In the Netherlands, issues related to family-related leave have been discussed by the social partners in the bipartite consultative Labour Foundation (Stichting van de Arbeid), with consensus for example reached over recognition of a new model of employees as having care responsibilities. In Norway, the LO trade union confederation and NHO employers' confederation have agreed (within the context of their 'basic agreement') on the principle that fathers should be encouraged to take a larger part of parental leave entitlement.

Finally, in Sweden, the social partners are involved in ongoing cooperation and dialogue with the the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (JämO). They meet twice a year to discuss equality issues, including parental leave. The fact that women take more parental leave than men is a recurring issue.

Impact of leave and gender equality

Deciding to take parental or other family-related leave is never without consequences for a person’s career. When used as a means of balancing family and work commitments, leave may turn out to hamper parents’ careers, especially mothers, or may even be perceived as a sign (real or imagined) that those taking leave are less willing to 'invest' in work - a perception that may lead to all sorts of consequences, such as lower pay and slower promotions.

Leave may also have a positive effect on gender equality both at home and in the workplace. The sharing of leave by both parents is an important factor and the extent to which men and women use the various types of leave available reveals the gender-based perception and division of labour in European societies. As examined below, the respective take-up of leave by men and women varies from one country to the next, and this seems to result from a variety of factors.

Major variations in take-up of leave

Analysis of the evidence on the take-up of leave by men and women indicates two groups of country: two Nordic nations, Sweden and Norway, where leave is a tool used by both men and women to balance work and family commitments; and the remaining countries, where leave is still mainly a female preserve, though the situation varies greatly between countries.

In Sweden, in 2000 men accounted for 40.2% of people taking temporary leave to care for a sick child (available for up to 60 days per year). The percentage of such leave days taken by men rose from 36% in 2000 to 43% in 2002. As far as paternity leave is concerned, 73% of fathers took the whole 10 days of leave in 2000. In 2002, approximately 40% of fathers claimed paternal leave, averaging 27 days. This figure has been steadily rising since the early 1990s. In 2002, 16% of parental leave days were used by fathers, up from 12% in 2000 and 7% a decade earlier. The growing participation of fathers in parental leave is thought to be due to the various reforms undertaken since the 1970s, and in particular, to the creation in 1995 of a one-month period of paid parental leave that cannot be transferred to the other parent, extended to two months in 2002. More generally, this progress is seen as part of an active policy aiming to implement gender equality by changing mindsets and perceptions.

In Norway, in 2001, 85% of eligible fathers claimed their four-week no-transferable quota of parental leave, while 13.5% claimed over four weeks, or in other words claimed part of the parental leave that may be shared by the two parents. A 2003 study found that the percentage of fathers not taking any type of leave stood at 8%. The percentage of fathers claiming parental leave is higher among highly-qualified, white-collar men and in the public sector. The percentage is also higher where mothers work full time and/or have a senior, well-paid position. However, the majority of parental leave is still claimed by mothers. One of the reasons for this stems from wage disparities between men and women. Without an individual or collective agreement with the employer providing for full pay compensation, the family loses more money if the father stays at home. Moreover, if mothers work part time (under 75% of the standard working week) after the birth of the child, fathers receive lower compensation while on leave. Another possible explanation is that men are reluctant to take parental leave, mainly because of employer reaction. Parental leave in Norway is perceived as a way of: ensuring that women participate in the labour market; fostering high employment rates; encouraging gender equality at work; and improving the well-being of parents before and after their child is born.

The cases of Sweden and Norway support the idea that reserving a proportion of leave for each parent is a major incentive. In both these countries, family-related leave is arguably an integral part of overall social cohesion policy and, as such, is dovetailed with family, employment and equality policies.

In the other 18 countries examined, take-up of family-related leave varies and mainly involves women. First, in some of these countries, access to and take-up of leave remains limited with major disparities existing between men and women. In Ireland for example, a 2002 study found that only 20% of eligible employees claimed their entitlement (introduced in 1998) to unpaid parental leave (7% of the workforce were parents eligible for leave), of whom 84% were women. The take-up was higher in the civil service (43%) and in the financial service sector (39%) where return-to-work guarantees are better. In the UK, recent government research indicates that unpaid parental leave had been taken by only 3% of parents. An official employee survey revealed that only 5% of parents with children under 16 had taken parental leave in the last year with their current employer, and most (41%) had taken between one and two days.

In the majority of the 18 countries, leave is mostly claimed by mothers. In Spain, in 2003, 97.9% of those on leave for family-related reasons were women, while in Hungary 98% of those on parental leave were mothers. In Belgium, 91% of employees under the age of 50 who claimed leave in 2002 were women, while in France, approximately 98% of those claiming parental leave allowances were women. In France, close to a third of eligible women have claimed benefit paid to compensate for parental leave, compared with approximately 1% of eligible men. In Hungary and Slovakia (where 0.5% of fathers take leave), the few fathers that claim parental leave are in specific unemployment situations while their wives have open-ended jobs. In Germany, while between 90% and 92% of births are followed by parental leave, claimants are almost exclusively women, with men only representing 2.1% in 2001. Two-thirds of women who were in employment prior to the birth of their child take parental leave, according to a 2002 survey. Most women in eastern Germany take between one and two years’ leave while women in the west of the country claim between two and three years.

Similarly, women account for the vast majority of those taking parental leave in Austria, with men making up only 2.2% of the total in 2003, down slightly on the level before a 2002 reform. In Slovenia, 5.6% of male employees and 28% of female employees took leave in 1995 to care for a sick family member. Between 1994 and 1997, fathers accounted for around 0.5% of parental leave benefit claimants. In 2002, before a reform was enacted, fathers represented under 1% of people on parental leave. The reform, which came into force in 2003, appears to have had some impact. Over the first few months of 2003, the percentage of eligible fathers on paternal leave rose to 1.5%. In Finland, only 2% of fathers took parental leave, lasting on average 64.7 days. prior to a 2003 reform that extended paternity leave by two weeks for fathers taking up a percentage of parental leave. In Denmark, the average length of parental leave taken by fathers was 2.6 weeks in 2002, compared with 25.1 weeks for women.

In the Netherlands, since the parental leave scheme was introduced in 1991, some 25% of eligible employees have used it, with figures of 42% for mothers and 12% for fathers. Take-up in sectors where leave is paid, such as the public sector where compensation generally runs at 75% of pay, is much higher: in the public sector, 49% of eligible employees take leave, which is almost double the figure for all sectors, with rates of 59% for eligible women and 40% for eligible men. The relatively high percentage of men claiming parental leave in the public sector underlines that a high level of compensation is a key incentive for fathers.

Luxembourg also has relatively high male take-up. In 2001, men accounted for about 10% of those taking parental leave. Whereas women claimants are mainly between the ages of 25 and 29, men are more often between 30 and 34 and take leave later than their female counterparts. This phenomenon is a direct result of the relevant legislation: one parent must take leave immediately after maternity leave and the other parent may postpone leave, taking it in the period up until the child is five years old.

As far as paternity leave is concerned, the available figures show a relatively significant take-up rate. In the UK, a 2003 study found that 63% of fathers of children under one year old took paternity leave (averaging nine days) in 2002, in line with government forecasts when this scheme was introduced. In Portugal, the paternity leave scheme is increasingly successful, with 12,980 claimants in 2000 rising to 30,877 in 2002 - an increase of 130% over two years. In Finland, two-thirds of fathers took paternity leave averaging 15 days (out of a maximum of three weeks) in 2001. In France, the government had forecast that 40% of eligible fathers would take paternity leave after it was extended in 2002 from three days to two weeks - in practice, initial estimates indicate that close to 60% of eligible fathers have done so. In the Netherlands, according to a 2002 study, almost all eligible fathers took advantage of the two-day paid paternity leave scheme. In Slovenia, over 90% of fathers take paternity leave, averaging roughly eight days.

Explanations for take-up rates

The success of family-related leave and its impact depends on the characteristics of the particular scheme - in terms of duration, compensation, flexibility, provisions for sharing by the two parents etc - but also the context. Several interlinked factors, which often build up into a system, explain low leave take-up rates among parents. These include: problems with regard to information about the leave; leave compensation and pay disparities; hard-to-find or inflexible childcare facilities, leading parents to care fully for their own children; prevailing family organisation models; and fear among employees that taking leave will isolate them from the labour market.

Information problems

In those countries, such as Ireland and the UK, where leave schemes are recent, the fact that people are poorly informed about them may partly explain their slow development. In the latter country, studies have found that employers and working parents alike are still very unaware of the entitlement to parental leave. Improved awareness of existing provisions would undoubtedly improve leave take-up rates.

Compensation and wage disparities

From the evidence, paid leave schemes are more successful than their unpaid counterparts (see above under 'Statutory parental leave'). Moreover, when compensation paid during leave brings total income to or near to normal pay levels, there is a notable increase in the number of fathers taking parental leave.

Looking at examples of countries where statutory parental leave is unpaid, in Ireland, statutory unpaid parental leave is rarely used despite high demand. A study presented in 2002 suggested that low take-up may be related to the fact that leave is unpaid: some 82% of fathers and 62% of mothers said that they would like to spend more time with their children and the majority were in favour of paid leave so that they could afford to do so. In the UK, according to a 1999 study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), one parent in three could not afford to take parental leave for financial reasons. The UK Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) argues that the absence of pay for parental leave is likely to result in a two-tier system in which better paid parents are able to take paid leave through generous contractual arrangements, but parents on lower incomes are unable to take leave for financial reasons. Furthermore, because women earn less, couples often decide that it makes economic sense for the woman to give up work or cut her hours so she can care for the children - thus women continue to earn less and the caring role is still seen primarily as a female one. In Spain, too, low take-up of leave can partially be explained by the fact that the leave is unpaid (plus fact that many employees under the age of 35 are employed on a temporary contract basis).

In countries where the level of compensation for parental leave is low (such as Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Slovakia), take-up tends to be restricted to women, whose wages are often lower than those of their male partner. In France, the small flat-rate benefit encourages a greater number of women to take parental leave than men and studies have found that it is a greater incentive to taking leave for mothers with low-wage jobs, bad working conditions and poor career prospects. In Slovakia, poor leave compensation is reported to be one of the factors behind the de facto exclusion of fathers. There is a very low ceiling for paternity leave compensation and compensation for parental leave is in the form of a very small flat-rate benefit. As a result, mothers account for 99% of those taking parental leave - hardly surprising, given that women’s wages are on average almost 30% lower than men’s. In Hungary too, low compensation and gender wage disparities go some way to explaining the virtual female monopoly on parental leave.

Compensation during family-related leave that is calculated as a relatively high proportion of pay encourages more fathers to take part of the available leave. This is true for parental leave in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, and appears to be behind the recent success of extended paid paternity leave in Finland and France. In the Netherlands, while parental leave is generally unpaid, it is paid in parts of the public sector and has a higher take-up, especially among men, underlining again that compensation plays a significant role in this area.

However, even when compensation is high, fathers’ take-up rates are lower due to pay disparities between the two parents. In Norway, gender wage disparities are reportedly the reason why the great majority of parental leave is claimed by mothers despite the fact that compensation is proportionate to pay. Without a collective agreement or an employer-initiated scheme providing full pay compensation, families lose too much money when it is the father who stays at home. In Denmark, wage disparities are also thought to contribute to this disproportionate spread of leave between men and women - on average, men’s wages are 14.3% and 19.0% higher than women's among blue-collar and white-collar workers respectively.

Childcare facilities

The existence or absence of alternatives to parents taking leave in order to care for their child appears to play a role in some cases. In several countries, including Austria, Germany and Hungary, the benefit system provides additional encouragement for women to stop work altogether, because there is a shortage of care facilities for young children.

Traditional family organisation models

In Hungary and Slovakia, it appears that traditional family organisation is the main barrier to greater male participation in family life, (though a study conducted in 2001 and 2002 in Slovakia indicated that some progress has been made in this area). Caring for children is still widely seen as a woman’s duty while supporting the family is a male task. The sharing of childcare duties is generally neither practiced nor accepted.

In Spain, commentators state that current policies do not foster greater sharing of parenting and domestic duties and do nothing to tackle a prevailing male-dominated culture.  Indeed, they may even entrench gender-based practices and stereotypes which undermine greater equality. In France too, a study has found that the failure of some fathers to take up paternity leave stems from the fact that they disapprove of the idea of stopping work to raise a child and view this new approach to child-rearing as too far removed from their traditional perceptions and values on the place of fathers and mother in the raising of children.

Concerns about taking leave

Even in those countries, like Norway, where the participation of fathers in child-rearing is more commonplace than in others, it is reported that fewer men take parental leave than women because it is less accepted by employers. Furthermore, in many countries, leave take-up, in particular among men, is thought to be low partly because of employee concerns about the reaction of their employers. Furthermore, take-up of leave among fathers is often higher in the public sector because there are generally greater return-to-work guarantees and is lower among employees in less stable employment (such as temporary employment).

In the Netherlands, research indicates that men do not take leave lightly out of concern for their jobs and future career. In Ireland, financial implications apart, employees in senior positions are reported to have problems in cutting down on or stopping work, because of norms in the labour market. In Spain, studies have found that an often very traditional corporate culture is not receptive to policies to improve the work-life balance. In Greece, some employers say that they avoid hiring women who either have or will have family commitments, considering such recruitment to be counterproductive. Such discrimination against women by many employers is also reported to exist in Austria and Slovenia. In Slovenia, according to a 1996 study, 70% of employers considered that employing a young woman who might possibly take maternity or parental leave represented a greater risk and cost than employing a man or a woman with grown-up children. In France, a recent study found that failure to take up paternity leave is mainly for job-related reasons, such as: financial constraints; high workload, especially in rather inflexible smaller companies; and fear of employer reaction, especially among people in unstable employment (such as temporary agency work and fixed-term contracts).

Employees’ fear of taking family-related leave because of the potential personal impact sometimes appears justified, given negative repercussions actually experienced by parents who take leave. In the UK, the EOC receives many calls from women who state that they are unable to resume their previous or an equivalent job after maternity leave. In Finland, although parents are entitled to return to their previous job after leave, they may have some difficulty in doing so. Their particular job may no longer exist and the chances of finding another one are lower after a long absence from the labour market. In Denmark, evidence suggests that taking leave may hamper women’s careers and have a negative impact on pension entitlement. In Poland, taking family-related leave also undermines women’s pension entitlement.

In Hungary, women are often reported to lose touch with their place of work during the relatively long parental leave period. According to a survey, only 45% of women who worked prior to taking leave attempted to return to the same company. In the other cases, the company had either collapsed, or poor working conditions, a lack of possibilities of reorganising working time or a lack of childcare facilities prevented them from returning. In Sweden, a lingering concern over the attitude of employers to pregnant women and therefore over potential discrimination is reported to persist. In France, studies have found that women who have taken extended periods of parental leave experience difficulties returning to employment.

Not promoting but undermining gender equality?

In Germany, according to a 2000 study, despite the existence of a legal right to re-employment after parental leave, only six out of 10 western German women and three-quarters of eastern German women who had had a first child and were employed beforehand had returned to their job three years after the birth of the child. Among those returning, western German women often moved to a part-time job after parental leave - perhaps reflecting the fact that childcare facilities are less developed in this part of the country. Furthermore, a relatively high proportion of women faced unemployment after the statutory leave period - one in six women who was employed before the birth of a child was registered as unemployed three years later. The rate was higher in eastern Germany - 21% compared with 16% in western Germany - because of the adverse labour market situation and the fact that eastern German women are more likely to be unemployed jobseekers rather than just not employed.

In Austria, two studies have found that the recently reformed childcare leave incentive system encourages a greater number of young mothers to quit their jobs than the previous scheme and that they find it harder than before to return to employment after leave. A 2003 study found that the proportion of mothers returning to work before their child was 27 months' old fell from 54% to 33% between mid-2000 and mid-2002. A November 2003 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that 25% of Austrian women resume their original job after parental leave, 25% return to less highly paid part-time employment, and approximately half are unsuccessful in finding work.

In France, a 1994 reform that extended parental benefit to cover parents with two children has led to a more significant number - between 110,000 and 150,000 depending on the study quoted - of women with two children giving up employment after the birth of their second child. A further study found that prior to receiving the benefit, 76% of female claimants had a job, but that this figure fell to 51% after leave. Those hardest hit seem to be women already finding it hard to get a job before taking leave (ie those in unstable or low-paid employment, or unemployed). In Greece too, women reportedly find it difficult to resume work following a period of leave.


Leave is only one tool, among others, used to foster the work-life balance and to promote gender equality. The impact of leave depends on other contextual factors, which enable parents to reduce the constraints - mainly time-related - of family responsibilities or prevent them from doing so. These factors concern matters such as: wage disparities on the labour market; the prevailing values of society as to the role and place of men and women in the family and at work; the availability and accessibility of childcare facilities; working conditions; and the possibility of tailoring job and work schedules.

Analysis of the family-related leave schemes available in the 20 countries studied underscores the variety of provisions and configurations that exist. All in all, in the majority of countries, legislation is predominant and structures the leave available for parents. However, where collective agreements exist, they play a significant role in and are even sometimes a springboard for improving parental leave. The varying degrees of importance of collective bargaining in terms of leave reflect national specificities in labour market organisation. (Antoine Math and Christèle Meilland, IRES)

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