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Brussels, 3 October 2008
Why is work-life balance important?
Policies to help people balance professional, private and family life improve quality of life for both women and men and increase participation in the labour market, particularly for women.
They are also an important element in dealing with demographic ageing: those countries with more women in employment are also the countries with the highest birth rates.
Improving work-life balance is at the core of Europe's strategy for growth and jobs and the European Parliament has consistently called for more action to improve work-life balance, as have national governments in the Council.
How can it be improved?
Strategies to support work-life balance include a number of different elements and require the commitment of various players. Adequate provision of childcare facilities, entitlement to leave and flexible working arrangements are core components of the policy mix, while European, national and local authorities as well as social partners at European, national and sectoral levels all have a role to play.
What does this package consist of?
The Commission's work-life balance package consists of four main parts: a policy document (communication) explaining the background and context, two legislative proposals (to revise existing directives) and a report on progress made by EU countries towards the so-called 'Barcelona targets' for childcare provision (see also IP/08/1449 and MEMO/08/592).
The legislative proposals aim to:
1) strengthen women's legal entitlement to family-related leave, namely maternity leave;
2) ensure equal treatment of the self-employed and their assisting spouses.
What will change under the new maternity proposals?
Existing EU legislation on maternity leave (Directive 92/85/EEC) provides for a minimum leave period of 14 weeks and for a minimum payment during this leave at the level of sick pay.
The main points of the new proposal are:
Why do we need to revise the existing legislation?
Better provisions for balancing professional, private and family responsibilities help women to work and have a family at the same time. It is important to encourage more women to enter the employment market and stay there, even after they have children. Under the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs, it has been made clear that women's potential in the labour market is essential. We also know that there is a positive correlation between birth rates and the quality of reconciliation facilities such as child care facilities and flexible working arrangements. Moreover, many stakeholders and institutions have called for improvements to the existing European legislation in this field. Strengthening rights linked to maternity is one step to improving work-life balance.
The period of 18 weeks has been recommended by the International Labour Organisation – the UN body dealing with labour issues – since 2000 and 13 Member States already have 18 weeks of maternity leave or more in place (BU, CZ, DK, EE, FI, HU, IE, IT, LT, PL, RO, SK and UK).
How will this improve things for women?
Women are more likely to stay in the labour market when they have sufficient time to care for their baby and have a solid and guaranteed right to return to the same job after taking family-related leave. If maternity leave is too short, women sometimes choose or are forced to give up their career and stay at home. Improved maternity leave thus helps women who are already in the labour market to stay there. Studies show that measures to improve family-related leave (maternity leave, parental leave, paternity leave) can help increase women's employment rate by 3-4%.
The proposed extension gives women and families the possibility to build a stable relationship with the child, allowing women to recover from giving birth, breastfeed the child longer and take care of the child until childcare (formal or informal) is available.
What are the existing periods and conditions of maternity leave in EU countries?
The following table gives an overview of existing provisions in EU countries. It forms part of the impact assessment for the new proposal and is based on information provided by national governments.
What about the proposal on self-employed women?
Member States would be required to at least give self-employed women the choice to be covered by a social security scheme providing for maternity leave.
The Commission's proposal updates existing legislation (Directive 86/613/EEC) by saying that Member States must provide that self-employed women can, if they so request, benefit from the same maternity leave as employees (as set out in Directive 92/85/EEC currently under revision). 19 EU countries already provide for this (CY, DK, EE, FI, DE, HU, IE, IT, LV, LU, MT, NL, PL, PT, SK, SI, ES, SE, UK).
The proposal strikes the right balance between the need to improve the protection of self-employed women and the recognition of the specificities of self-employment, where the freedom to choose one's working time arrangements is crucial.
What are 'assisting spouses' and how will they be affected?
'Assisting spouses' are defined as spouses of the self-employed worker (male or female) who regularly contribute to the activities of the family business without being a partner or employee, for example on a farm or other small family business.
In 18 Member States (AT, BU, CZ, EE, FR, DE, EL, IE, IT, LV, LT, MT, PL, PT, RO, SK, SI, and UK), the contribution of assisting spouses is not recognised for the purpose of social protection. As a consequence, 'assisting spouses' who have worked for decades in the family business could be left without any revenue or protection in case of divorce or death of the self-employed worker.
The proposal provides that Member States must ensure that assisting spouses can, at their request, benefit from at least an equal level of protection as self-employed workers.
What is the Commission doing about other forms of leave, like parental leave?
The Commission consulted European employers' and trade union representatives on possible work-life balance measures in two stages during 2006 and 2007, covering all forms of leave, such as maternity, paternity and parental leave.
The social partners decided in July 2008 to launch formal negotiations on updating the existing EU rules on parental leave (Directive 96/34/EC – itself based on a framework agreement between the European social partners) so the Commission is not making any proposals in this field.
According to EU rules, the social partners have a period of nine months to carry out their negotiations. Should they reach an agreement to revise the current directive, the Commission will then make a proposal to give their agreement legislative effect.