New law adopted on parental leave

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Legislation approved by Italy's Chamber of Deputies in October 1999 transposes the EU Directive on parental leave into Italian law. The most innovative aspects of the new law are that it increases leave to 10 months within the first eight years of the child's life, and encourages the use of parental leave by fathers.

On 13 October 1999, the Italian Chamber of Deputies approved a new law on parental leave. Although approval by the Senate is still awaited, it should be forthcoming shortly, and can be considered a certainty in view of the broad consensus in favour of the law obtained in the Chamber (268 votes in favour, 169 abstentions and seven against). The passage through parliament of the "law on working time and family care", which was presented in September 1997 has thus now effectively concluded.

Female participation in the Italian labour market

Over the past 30 years, and especially since the 1980s, female participation in the Italian labour market has changed substantially. Traditionally in Italy, women entered the labour market when they were very young (aged under 18 years) and with a low level of schooling (in many case with a lower secondary school certificate). They then left as a consequences of events in their family life, like marriage or the birth of a child. The most significant features to have emerged in the past 20 years are that women are now entering the labour market later, with higher levels of schooling, and that they are remaining in it longer.

Nevertheless, the Italian labour market is still somewhat differentiated by gender, and has a number of distinctive features in comparison with those of other European countries. First, although the presence of women in the labour market has increased, the female employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe (36.7% in 1998 compared with 65.1% for men, according to Eurostat figures). Conversely, the rate of female unemployment is among the highest in Europe (16.8% in 1998 compared with 9.4% for men, according to Eurostat). Finally, female labour market participation varies from one part of the country to another, being much higher in the regions of northern Italy and some central regions than it is in the South.

A variety of reasons are cited in explanation of these peculiarities, but principally the fact that the welfare system is centred more on cash benefits than on the provision of services (nursery schools, for example, or care for older people), and that part-time work is comparatively rare.

Among the measures considered of prime importance in reducing this gender-based disparity are: enactment of a new law on parental leave; transposition into law of the 1997 EU Directive on part-time work (EU9712175N); and initiatives to foster the growth of female entrepreneurship.

The law on parental leave

In Italy, parental leave is regulated mainly by the law (currently laws 1204 of 1971 and 903 of 1977) (TN9801201S). Statutory entitlements can be extended by collective bargaining at sectoral and company level, but this happens to only a limited extent.

The new parental level law approved by the Chamber of Deputies in October 1999 extends the period during which parents may be absent from work in order to look after a child. Before approval of the new law, parents could take optional leave for six months prior to the child's first birthday. Moreover, parents were entitled to take paid leave to look after a sick child until he or she was three years old.

Under the new law, the mother or father may take a total of 10 months' parental leave until the child's ninth birthday. In order to encourage fathers to apply for leave, the law provides that they can be granted an extra month if they have applied for three months' leave. Parental leave is doubled in the case of twins. Moreover, adoptive parents have the same rights as natural ones. The paid leave to look after a sick child is extended to cover children over the age of three: between the ages of three and eight, if the child is ill, the parents may now be absent from work, on an alternating basis, for up to five days a year.

The period of compulsory maternity leave for women can now be arranged differently. Whereas previously the entitlement was two months prior to confinement and three months after, under the new law mothers may apply for a period of leave amounting to one month before confinement and four months after.

Another innovative aspect of the law concerns self-employed women. If they intend to take parental leave, they are entitled to tax relief if they arrange to be substituted at work by another person.

Confindustria, the main employers' confederation, has been extremely critical of the new law. It is particularly worried about the costs that will accrue to firms from the extension of the duration of parental leave. According to Confindustria, the new provisions will mainly penalise small and medium-sized firms.

Commentary

After some delay, the 1996 EU Directive on parental leave has now been converted into Italian law. The aim of the new law is to enable a more satisfactory balance to be struck between family and work commitments. Accordingly, its innovative aspects are the extension of the duration of leave and the introduction of incentives designed to encourage the use of leave entitlement by fathers.

The new law increases the workforce protection provided by Italian law and collective bargaining. In view of the protection already enjoyed by Italian workers, the employers' organisations argue that transposition of the EU parental leave Directive is an example of negative harmonisation, in the sense that it will create further costs for firms. This hostile reaction by employers shows that, in many cases, important measures on social matters are seen as antithetical to the needs of firms. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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