Social partner revision to parental leave directive

On 18 June 2009, the European social partners achieved a historic advance in adopting an agreement revising their 1995 Framework agreement on parental leave. In particular, the agreement provides for an increased period of leave and encourages fathers to take some leave, by making part of the leave non-transferable. In addition, parents will have the right to request flexible working when returning from parental leave. Overall, the social partners welcome the new provisions.

Background

In 1995, in accordance with the European social dialogue procedure outlined in Articles 138–139 EC, the European social partnersBusinessEurope (formerly UNICE), the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (Centre européen des entreprises à participation publique et des entreprises d’intérêt économique général, CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – adopted the Framework agreement on parental leave. This agreement was also the first agreement that was given force by a Council Directive, on 3 June 1996: Framework agreement on parental leave (Council Directive 96/34/EC).

At the Tripartite Social Summit held on 13 March 2008, the European social partners, including the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Union européenne de l’artisanat et des petites et moyennes entreprises, UEAPME), which had not been a party to the 1995 agreement, presented a progress report on the reconciliation of professional, private and family life. In light of the report’s findings, the social partners agreed to undertake joint action to achieve the aims of the Parental Leave Directive by revising it. This position was adopted following two consultations by the European Commission on the issue of reconciliation and two ad hoc social dialogue working group meetings held in January and February 2008. The parties worked for six months on amending the text of the original agreement, before coming up with the provisions of the revised framework agreement, which represent the best compromise position between employers and trade unions. By March 2009, the negotiations had been successfully completed.

Revised framework agreement

The revised framework agreement (116Kb PDF) significantly improves the rights of parents in relation to parental leave. It applies to all workers who have an employment contract or an employment relationship as defined by law, to include specifically fixed-term, part-time and temporary agency workers. It also establishes a right for workers to return to the same job or, if this is not possible, ‘to an equivalent or similar job consistent with their employment contract or employment relationship’. The social partners suggest that the revised framework agreement increases protection, not just against dismissal but also against unfavourable treatment as a result of exercising the right to parental leave. Specifically, the revised agreement’s provisions:

  • increase the length of parental leave from the current three months to four months;
  • make part of the leave non-transferable to encourage fathers to take advantage of parental leave;
  • offer a right to request flexible working when returning from parental leave;
  • call on Member States to establish notice periods that workers should give in exercising the right to parental leave.

The revised framework agreement also covers adoptive parents. The fact that the agreement specifically reserves some leave as non-transferable between the mother and father represents an important step ‘to encourage a more equal take-up of leave by both parents’. This is also a new initiative for the social partners to encourage fathers to play a more active role in the upbringing of their children. By making some leave non-transferable, the agreement provides incentives to fathers to take up a period of leave reserved for them.

Reactions to revised agreement

This is the first time that the social partners have revised a framework agreement and all of the parties involved in the revision have indicated their strong support for the changes. According to the social partners’ joint press release on 18 June 2009,

the successful conclusion of this agreement illustrates the positive role of the European social dialogue in finding solutions to respond to important challenges facing Europe, also in times of crisis.

The official signing of the revision was witnessed by the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, who commented that ‘European social partnership works and delivers concrete results for workers and companies in Europe’. For ETUC, General Secretary John Monks describes the revision as a ‘significant step’. The Secretary General of CEEP, Ralf Resch, characterised it as a ‘good compromise’, while the DirectorGeneral of BusinessEurope, Philippe de Buck, highlighted the fact that the social partners had worked on the agreement ‘in an autonomous way’. For UEAPME, Secretary General, Andrea Benassi, underlined that the agreement ‘took into account the evolution of society’ (see EurActiv press release on 8 July 2009).

The next step will be for the European Commission to propose implementation of the revised agreement through a new Council Directive, and it is expected that the Commission will soon submit a proposal to the Council of the European Union for such implementation.

Commentary

It is difficult to estimate the importance of the revision of the 1995 Framework agreement on parental leave. However, it signals that the European social partners are open to a more active engagement with rule-making instruments through framework agreements. Furthermore, they view these agreements as carrying with them an obligation on their proposers to continuously monitor implementation and improve their provisions. The new parental leave rights for fathers and the right to request flexible working on return from parental leave are also significant new developments.

Sonia McKay, Working Lives Research Institute

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