The situation of Estonian families has been the subject of increasing government attention over the last decade. Several policy measures have been implemented to improve families’ quality of life and to encourage parents to have more children; These include a generous parental leave benefit scheme. At the same time, the value of child benefits has remained the same for many years. Even though the Estonian economy is recovering from the recession and the economic situation of many families has improved, fighting child poverty is one of the biggest challenges to meet.
In 2011 the Estonian government approved the Children and Families Strategy 2012–2020. The main purpose of the strategy is to improve the well-being and quality of life of children and families in order to encourage higher birth rates.The strategy includes five strategic objectives: positive parenting, child rights, child protection systems, family benefits, and work-–life balance.
During the preparation of the Children and Families Strategy 2012-2020 a wide range of experts and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dealing with children and families recognised that there were insufficient activities aimed at supporting positive parenting, especially in the area of primary prevention. Also, according to the European Social Survey (2010), 44% of Estonian parents statethat they have felt the need for parenting advice and assistance in the last year, but that they did not know where to go or who to contact. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Education and Research, and Ministry of Justice have submitted a programme to the Norway and EEA Grants in order to start implementing an evidence-based parenting programme and other services aimed at children and youths at risk.
Estonian women participate actively in the labour market, but there are still problems in reconciling work and family life, especially for parents who have a child or children aged under two. In 2011, the employment rate for women was 62.8%, compared to 67.7% for men, the respective EU averages being 58.5% and 70.1%.
The gender pay gap in Estonia is high compared with the EU average, measured at 27.6% in 2008. One root cause is that the labour market is strongly segregated, that is to say many occupations have unbalanced gender representation.
Part-time work is not widespread. Only 15.4% of Estonian women and 5.6% of men work part-time, as opposed to the EU averages of 32.1% and 9%. Mainly due to the economic crisis and the labour market situation, the share of part-time work increased by 5 percentage points for women and 1.5 points for men compared to 2008 levels. Women with small children work considerably less than men: while the employment rate of fathers of children under the age of six was almost 91% in 2011, only around 52% of the mothers of children in this age group were employed. The EU averages were 88.3% and 59.9% respectively.
The provision of childcare is one of the most pressing issues in Estonia. In 2010, 21% of children under three were enrolled in formal childcare, which was mainly provided by local authorities. This is a significant increase from 2008 when 17% of children were enrolled, and is especially striking if one takes into account the increased birth rate, but it nevertheless falls short of the 33% enrolment rate of the Barcelona targets. For the age group of three to six, in 2010 the enrolment rate was 92% compared to 88% in 2008. The figure is higher than the EU average of 84% and the 90% Barcelona target.
The greatest shortfall in childcare provision is for children between the ages of 18 months (when parental benefit ends) and 3 years. The Estonian government has been actively trying increase the number of childcare places, mainly through a programme of state support for local authorities that was developed in 2007. The government allocated 700 million krooni (€44 million) for 2008–2011 to build and renovate nursery schools. The private sector is also gaining a presence in the field and local authorities often support private care providers with appropriate premises or financial support. Legislation has been adopted for the development of additional childcare services including the setting of professional standards for care providers. Also, discussions are continuing regarding the reorganisation of primary education and childcare provision in order to reduce the financial burden on families and alleviate child poverty.
Several rights and benefits aimed at families and parents (such as parental benefit, parental leave, additional days of childcare leave, care allowance in the event of the child’s sickness) are available equally to mothers and fathers. However, whilst people state that men and women should share childcare equally, this does not often translate into action. Nevertheless, a growing number of men are playing a more active role in sharing domestic and childcare responsibilities, and the proportion of men applying for parental benefit rose from 1.6% in 2005 to 8.5% in 2009. Over the last year, the number of men in receipt of parental benefit fell to 5.2% in 2011.
This drop has been caused partly by changes in the labour market during the economic crisis, as the crisis has hit female employment harder. As a result of the high unemployment, fewer fathers applied for parental benefit. Also, the proportion of men and women receiving parental benefit has been affected by changes to wages and salaries during the economic crisis. The proportion of fathers was higher among those recipients who receive the maximum amount of parental benefit. During the economic crisis, the share of men receiving the maximum benefit recipients has decreased.
Paternity leave benefit, suspended during the economic crisis, will be reintroduced from the beginning January 2013.
The old declarative child protection act is going to be replaced by a new act which places more emphasis on child rights and the organisation of the child protection system. Also, in parallel, there is a plan to reorganise the child welfare system in order to support small local authorities that have responsibility for supporting children and families. The plan includes establishing regional service centres and multifunctional outreach teams that would cover areas such as child welfare, mental health, education and legal protection.
Spending on social protection benefits for families has increased and is now at the EU average: 2.3% of GDP in 2009 compared to 2.3% in the EU. It is believed that the provision of family benefits helped to reduce the proportion of children at risk of poverty, which stood at 19.5% in 2011.
A range of financial measures are aimed at families but the level of support remains quite low:
At the same time the Estonian parental benefit scheme is very generous. Employees are entitled to a total of 575 calendar days of paid leave for bringing up a child. The first 140 days, which constitute the maternity leave, are fully paid and can be claimed only by the mother. The remaining 435 days can be shared between the parents who are paid their full salary, subject to a ceiling of €2143.41 per month in 2012. Parents who have not worked are eligible for a relatively high flat rate (€278.02 in 2012), which is a little bit lower than the minimum wage (€290 euros). This can be claimed for 18 months starting from childbirth.
Following the introduction of the parental benefit scheme, the fertility rate rose from 1.3 children per woman in 1998 to 1.6 children in 2009, similar to the EU average of 1.6. Over the year 2010–2011, the fertility rate dropped to 1.52, which is the lowest level since 2006.
During the economic crisis the government reduced the level of support for children and families. Now the government has introduced range of new benefits to support children living in need or at high risk of poverty. These new benefits are:
a) A rise in child benefit for the third and subsequent child to € 76.72 from 1 July 2013 and €95.9 from 2015.
b) Additional needs-based benefit for families with children who live in relative poverty. For families with one child it will be €9.59 euros from 1 July 2013 and €19.18 euros from 2015; for families with two or more children it will be €19,18 from 1 July 2013 and €38,36 from 2015.
c) Childbirth allowance for triplets and greater multiple births will increase for every child from €320 to €1000 from the 1 July, 2013.
One of the most important family policy questions is the nature and level of family benefits and services. The government aims to analyse the current situation and a whole range of different options in order to find the most cost-effective model to reduce child poverty. This will include a study of the different family benefits, the alimony system, tax exemptions, early education and care.
The information in the country profile was last updated in September 2012.
Certification scheme to encourage family-friendly employment policies
For ten years the Ministry of Social Affairs in cooperation with partners has organised a contest for the most employee and family friendly employer. Now a certification scheme has been introduced and will be piloted this year (2012).