Labour's family-friendly employment agenda

The UK government sees its "family-friendly" policies as a central plank in its efforts to "modernise" employment relations to the benefit of workers and employers alike. The Employment Relations Bill, due to become law in the summer of 1999, contains several important measures relating to maternity, parental and family leave. So far, however, collectively agreed provision on these issues remains limited, especially in respect of parental leave. Trade unions argue that without further government support a "minimalist" approach is likely to continue.

The Labour government views its "family-friendly" policies as a major initiative underpinning its efforts to reconcile flexibility, competitiveness and improved employment rights. The Employment Relations Bill (UK9902180F), published in January 1999 and due to become law in the summer, introduced a number of entitlements to family-related leave, complementing other government initiatives designed to offer support to working parents. On launching the Bill, the trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers was also keen to stress that its "family-friendly" provisions would benefit employers: "The measures proposed in the Bill are already widely applied in many of our top-performing companies, who are reaping the benefits in terms of greater employee commitment and cooperation, reduced staff turnover and increased productivity. There is a clear business case for this legislation ... strengthening parental and maternity leave provisions will help employees to achieve a better balance between their home and working lives - with clear benefits to the organisations they work for."

The Bill's family-friendly provisions

Under the terms of the Employment Relations Bill, the government will: draw up regulations to extend the statutory period of maternity leave and reduce the service requirement for additional leave; establish new rights to at least three months' parental leave and time off for adoption; and provide for "reasonable" time off to deal with family emergencies. The revisions to maternity leave will immediately benefit tens of thousands of women employees. The potential impact of the new rights to family-related leave and time off could be even greater, as presently 5.9 million workers have a child aged under eight years (the suggested age up to which leave might be taken set out in the EU Directive on parental leave (96/34/EC), which the Bill seeks to implement), and 2.2 million people are currently not formally entitled to any time off for family emergencies. However, the actual take-up of the forthcoming statutory provisions remains to be seen, as the new entitlements are to unpaid time off. Increasingly, trade unions have been addressing this issue through lobbying and through collective bargaining.

Trade union views

Whilst welcoming the government's proposals, the unions' main concern has been that the entitlements to time off will be unpaid, and that employer pressure might be brought on employees not to exercise their new rights. A recent Trades Union Congress (TUC) poll found that a third of parents would not be able to afford unpaid time off, and a further one in eight reported that they would not use their entitlements because of anticipated employer pressure, even though they could afford to lose the pay (UK9903192N).

The TUC has proposed government action on two fronts. First, it calls for significant resources to be dedicated to promoting the new family-related rights, arguing that at present they are unfamiliar to workers and employers. Second, it makes the case for some form of income replacement while employees are on leave, especially for those on low incomes. Speaking on behalf of the TUC general council at its congress in September 1998, Rita Donaghy said that the unions "must campaign to make sure parental leave is a real right and not a theoretical one. That means it must be paid leave. Otherwise, it is of little use - fathers will not take it, and it will be no good at all for lone parents."

The unions have also begun to use the proposals as a lever in their bargaining with employers. The trade union bargaining agenda widened considerably during the 1980s to reflect the increasing feminisation of the workforce, and maternity and parental leave rights are now recognised as an issue of concern to their members. That workers in unionised workplaces often enjoy better entitlements to leave and other benefits, as well as pay, is also seen as an important aid to recruitment. Union strategy has been firstly to negotiate the basic entitlement in advance of the legislation, and then to improve on the basic provisions wherever possible.

Employer views

Although generally receptive to the proposals on maternity leave, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has argued that the government's approach to the EU parental leave Directive should be "less prescriptive", particularly for smaller firms. This was stated in robust terms in the CBI's response to the Fairness at work white paper (UK9806129F), which preceded the Employment Relations Bill: "Many employers already offer, whether formally or informally, parental leave and time off for urgent family reasons. But for many smaller businesses such practices have been difficult or impossible to develop on a consistent basis. It is therefore critical to UK business that a minimalist approach is taken to the implementation of the [parental leave] Directive."

Specifically, the CBI argues that: parental leave entitlements should apply up to the fifth rather than eighth birthday, and only for children born after the date of UK implementation; six months' notice should be required from employees wanting to take leave; there should be no accrual of holiday or sick pay; and emergency leave should be unpaid and limited to three days per year.

Such concerns were reflected in a recent independent survey of employers by Industrial Relations Services, in which the terms of parental leave in particular were seen as a potential source of administrative costs, particularly if leave could be taken in multiple parts ("Employers prepare for fairness", IRS Employment Trends 674, February 1999). However, in its response to Fairness at work, the Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents human resources professionals, acknowledged that unpaid parental leave would be a "real constraint on take-up".

Negotiations on parental leave

The IRS survey indicated that existing parental leave arrangements are very uncommon. Other estimates suggest that only 3% of UK employers offer some form of extended paid parental leave, and that the main obstacle was their view of the costs involved ("Time out: the costs and benefits of paid parental leave", H Wilkinson, Demos, London, (1997)).

Nevertheless there have been signs of increasing attention to family leave since the 1996 parental leave Directive (TN9801201S) and in the light of the government's proposals. In the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey, one in five men and almost a third of women in the private sector reported that they had access to some form of parental leave. In the public sector, the figures were higher at one in three for men as well as women. Examples of agreements include those extending existing provisions on career breaks to male workers (British Gas), and allowing male employees access to maternity leave, either if both parents work for the company (Bank of England) or if a male worker is the family "breadwinner" (AT&T). Other agreements have extended unpaid paternity leave, often up to three months (eg Asda and Scottish Provident).

Paid parental leave remains rare, however. A recent agreement between the MSF union and Remploy provided for three months parental leave, including 10 days' paid leave. Negotiations are presently underway at the retail group Littlewoods over the terms of part-paid parental leave. Other examples are few and far between, leading the TUC to conclude from a survey of workplaces that parental leave was stuck at the "nice idea" level.

Commentary

According to official statistics, women are expected to account for 75% of the 1.7 million increase in the UK labour force over the next 10 years (Labour Market Trends, June 1998). The government's case is that employers can save on recruitment and training costs, and have more committed employees, through implementing "family-friendly" policies. The continuing pressures of immediate resource constraints, however, has meant that progress has tended to be slow. Employers have so far largely adopted a "wait and see" approach to the forthcoming legislation.

The parental leave entitlement is particularly important as it applies equally to men, so promoting "family-friendly" employment as a mainstream employment concern. Take-up by men in the UK is likely to be low, however, reflecting its unpaid status as well as the work pressures which have contributed to their having the longest working hours in the EU. The unions will continue to press for the state and employers to share the costs of family leave with workers. For their part, employers might be more open to contribute a period of (part) payment if the state were to provide additional tax concessions or top-up resources in turn. So far, the government has let it be known that it is "considering the introduction of statutory paternity pay" (House of Commons debates, 11 June 1998). In the meantime, further agreements on parental leave are likely ahead of the passage of the Employment Relations Bill, with the larger and more "progressive" employers setting the pace, although other employers are likely to maintain a "minimalist" approach to implementation. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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