Improved conditions for families with small children top the agenda

In June 1998, the Danish Government issued a package of policies that contains a range of initiatives to improve conditions for families with small children. The package was well received by the social partners, and will be discussed in forthcoming tripartite talks.

Improved conditions for families with small children were a central theme in the Prime Minister's traditional speech delivered on New Year's Day 1998 (DK9802156N). Having been through the March general election, the May referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty and 11 days of major industrial conflict over April-May (DK9805168F), the re-elected Social Democrat-led Government issued its long-awaited package of family-friendly polices on 9 June 1998. The package is by no means a simple recipe; it contains a wide range of initiatives, which involve five different actors - the government, the regional and municipal authorities, the social partners and, foremost, parents themselves.

Issues and reactions

In forthcoming tripartite talks, the following issues will be discussed with the social partners:

  • how to create more flexible and family-friendly workplaces;
  • how to improve part-time employment;
  • how to make family considerations an integral part of the personnel policy of companies; and
  • how to improve the flexibility of existing parental leave schemes.

The Government wants to address the subject of how workplaces can become more alert to the needs and preferences of parents with small children. In fact, in recent years the social partners have concluded collective agreements which result in more flexible working time and improve the possibilities for home-based work (telework), childcare leave and wage compensation during parental leave.

The Government recommends that part-time employment become a possibility for all and that the social partners review their collective agreements so as to improve the possibility of shifting back and forth from full- to part-time work. However, it is not the Government's policy to make more people work part-time. Part-time employment is not allowed in approximately 30% of the private labour market and some collective agreements prohibit full-time employees from shifting to part-time work.

Recognising the importance of a more family-friendly company culture, the Government will discuss with the social partners ways to improve the exchange of experience regarding companies' personnel policy. For its part, the Ministry of Social Affairs has issued a leaflet which lists a number of reasons for advancing a more family-friendly company culture:

  • retaining workers with different needs;
  • establishing and improving a wider basis for recruitment;
  • diminishing the number of days lost through illness and improving the responsibility of workers;
  • giving a positive signal to the employees;
  • improving "well-feeling" and well-being in the company; and
  • improving the image of the company.

Since Parliament had on 6 February 1998 expressed wide political support for the idea of a more flexible parental leave scheme, it was expected that the Government would propose changes in the present legislation, in line with the proposal put forward by the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (Handels- og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund i Danmark, HK) on 29 January 1998 (DK9802156N). However, following the announcement of the Government's package, both right- and left-wing parties are disappointed with what they see as a lack of ambition and will to take concrete steps.

The Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) is pleased with the fact that the Government has chosen to await the outcome of the tripartite talks before considering the next step. In the employers' view, it is sensible that the Government should refrain from solely using legislation to address the matter. According to DA, what is needed is not a longer period of leave, but a more flexible and responsive day-to-day planning of working time. According to DA, the way to ensure an improved interplay between working life and family life is by improving the daily planning of working time at the workplace. Ways to ensure more satisfied employees can include allowing more flexible working time and holidays and converting overtime to free time to spend with sick children. DA is positive about the idea that parents should be offered the possibility of shifting to part-time work for a period.

The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) is equally pleased with the Government's approach, saying it is a step in the right direction. LO looks forward to taking part in "visionary" tripartite talks.

Commentary

With a low unemployment rate of 6.4% and a 75% activity rate for women and 83% for men (79% for all those aged 16-66), Danish parents are among the busiest in Europe. Moreover, some 92% of Danish women with children are engaged in active employment, with an average working week of 34 hours. Whereas reduction of working time is on the European agenda, more free time and time off to spend with children are at the top of the Danish agenda. The volume of time off available to be spent with children - childcare and parental leave taken together - stands at 136 weeks or 2.5 years of leave for each family.

Free time and time off to spend with children were the main themes of the 11-day major industrial conflict which the private sector saw in April-May 1998. The Government's intervention to end the dispute gave workers within the LO/DA bargaining area two more days off and three more childcare days (DK9805168F).

According to a new survey conducted for LO, a clear majority of workers (73%) assess the present conditions for families with small children as being good or fair. It is interesting to note that there is a stronger preference among those surveyed for spending more free time on hobbies and leisure time interests (46%) than more time with the family (37%). This survey simply shows that the matter is far from simple and that a company-oriented and individual approach may the best way to handle different preferences, thus achieving the best results. (Kåre FV Petersen, FAOS)

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