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NEW START to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families


The European Commission is starting a new initiative which is replacing the 2008 proposal to revise the Maternity Leave Directive. There is a need to modernise and adapt the current legal and policy framework of the European Union (EU) so that parents with children or those with dependent relatives can better balance their caring responsibilities and professional life. This is in particular thought to have a positive effect on labour market participation of women, which still remains very low across the EU.

The policy issue: female labour market participation is still low and linked to women taking over care responsibilities

Female labour market participation was at 63.5% in 2014 which is 11.5% below the Europe 2020 target for total employment rate of 75% for men and women. Female labour market participation is linked to the distribution of work and care responsibilities between women and men.

For example, after having children, many women tend to reduce their hours of paid employment to take up unpaid childcare responsibilities. Some women actually drop out of the labour market entirely or work in jobs below their level of qualification. Those who continue to work often do so in part time with 1/3 saying that they actually would like to work full time. Women also provide the bulk of unpaid care for handicapped and older dependent relatives.

Better options to balance work and care responsibilities could help but are often lacking

While female labour market participation remains below its potential in EU countries, better options to balance work and care responsibilities could change this situation. However, across many EU Member States there seems to a wider lack of these options. This includes a shortage of affordable childcare, overly rigid working time arrangements and the absence of incentives for men to take more care responsibilities in their families.

What are the wider effects?

Recent Eurofound figures show that the estimated costs of the gender employment gap are more than 300 bn Euros per year (or 2.5 % of current EU GDP) consisting of forgone earnings and unpaid taxes, as well as excess of welfare transfers. This points not only to a waste of resources for the EU economy as a whole, but also to a sub-optimal allocation of skills and competences acquired through education by women. Lower employment rates also lead to a high risk of poverty for women.

The policy objective: increasing female labour market participation through better work-life reconciliation

There is therefore a strong economic case for supporting the participation of women-carers in the labour market, both by protective measures and work-life balance policies. This can help to boost employment, contribute to resolve emerging labour market shortages and address fiscal challenges arising from demographic. It can also contribute to reducing the risk of poverty and social exclusion of people, in particular females, with caring responsibilities.

The new initiative aims at increasing the participation of women in the labour market through better work-life reconciliation, appropriate protection and strengthened gender equality. This objective will therefore contribute in particular to achieving the employment headline target of Europe 2020.

Way forward

The Commission will first invite the Social Partners, in accordance with Article 155 of the TFEU, to assess the current directives on Parental Leave, Fixed-term and Part-time Work to see if they can be updated. In parallel a public consultation will be part of the Commission's preparation process. This consultation will include, among other stakeholder, representatives of SMEs and micro-businesses, the European Parliament, EU Member States and non-governmental organisations active in the field of work-life balance and gender equality. The results of that consultation will feed into the preparation of an Impact Assessment. In preparation of the Impact Assessment work an Inter-Service Group has been set up in autumn 2015, which includes the Secretariat-General and Legal-Service, as well as the Directorate Generals Justice and Consumers, Employment and Social affairs and Health.