Leave policies – in the context of family policy – topped the agenda at the sixth annual seminar of the International Network on Leave Policies & Research at the Charles University in Prague on 10 and 11 September, attended by the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimir Špidla. Set up in 2004, the network has members from more than 25 countries – mostly in Europe, but also from Australia, Canada and the United States. The network is coordinated by Dr. Fred Deven (Flemish Government’s Population and Family Study Centre in Brussels) and Professor Peter Moss (Institute of Education University in London).
Fred Deven commented, “Our members meet once a year to share knowledge, research findings and cross-national analysis on demography, maternity, paternity and parental leave, but also on leave to care for sick or disabled relatives. We also prepare joint publications, such as special issues of journals and books and develop cross-national research proposals”.
The first day presentations and discussions were dedicated to current demographic trends and family policy in Central and Eastern Europe, with a special focus on the situation in the Czech Republic. They were complemented by overviews of leave policy and research in Germany, Finland and Russia.
The presenters pointed out that countries of Central and Eastern Europe had undergone significant changes in their demographic composition, and family formations as a consequence, since the transition to market economies.
“The most alarming development across the region is the declining birth rate” highlighted Jitka Rychtaříková, a demographics professor at Charles University in Prague. Women have 1.3 children on average– and as few as 1.2 in Slovakia – compared to 1.5 for the EU as a whole. “A shift towards late and rare childbearing, a severe lack of formal childcare and parental leave schemes encouraging women to stay at home to look after their children rather than facilitating work-life reconciliation and failing to involve fathers are further features common to all the country in the region” she explained.
Daniel Erler from Germany looked at the impact of major recent changes in parental leave in Germany, especially on take-up by fathers. Minna Salmi, from Finland, gave an overview of leave policy issues and highlighted the extensive research on parental leave in that country, including studies in work organisations.
The second day focussed the costs and economics of leave policies and on what the EU is doing in the field of leave and family issues. Margaret O’Brien from the UK reported on an exercise to establish the cost of an effective leave policy (about 0.5% of GDP), while Jannke Plantenga from the Netherlands reviewed evidence on the costs and benefits of leave policies.
Presentations also included a follow-up on the European Commission proposal for new parental leave legislation. The proposal, negotiated together with European Social Partners, will extend the minimum leave for each parent from three to four months – and apply to all employees – if approved by the EU''s Member States.
“This measure is designed to allow adequate leave flexibility, while encouraging a more balanced take-up of the available leave between mothers and fathers” stated Vladimír Špidla, EU Commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, present at the seminar. Commissioner Špidla welcomed the agreement and stressed the importance of flexible parental leave in the struggle for improved work-life balance, especially for women.