Commission package to promote better work-life balance – timely, but should have gone further

Brussels, 03/10/2008

ETUC welcomes the Commission proposals to increase the minimum length of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks and any plans to improve payment levels during maternity leave in particular. On the other hand, it regrets that no proposals have been made to tackle a number of shortcomings of the Pregnant Workers Directive concerning its health and safety dimension, notably in terms of prevention and risk assessment, nor to strengthen rights concerning breastfeeding. ‘Another key point for us would be measures to extend maternity protection to all workers in “atypical” jobs, including domestic workers,’ emphasises Catelene Passchier, ETUC Confederal Secretary.

The social partners at EU level have recently committed themselves to a range of actions to improve reconciliation of work, private and family life, and have started negotiations on the revision of the Parental Leave Directive. ETUC aims to improve its provisions to ensure that all workers, men and women, with care obligations can and will make full use of the necessary leave arrangements.

Regarding childcare, the social partners have underlined in a joint letter in July that greater efforts are required at all levels to achieve the Barcelona targets for childcare provision by 2010 of at least 90% for all children between three years of age and the mandatory school age, and for at least 33% of children under three. Therefore, launching a report to monitor progress and assess childcare provision in the EU Member States is useful as a first step. However, Ms Passchier stresses that ‘ETUC wishes to see more concrete actions in order to improve the availability of accessible and affordable childcare facilities of good quality throughout the EU. More pressure must be put on Member States to reach full coverage of childcare facilities.’

Given the growing importance of elder and dependent care, ETUC regrets that they are not included in the work–life balance package and believes that the Commission has missed a vital opportunity to address them. Ms Passchier highlights that ‘the challenges arising from demographic change must urgently be tackled, as workers and families are today under increasing pressure to take up care for elderly parents and relatives. Improving working conditions and wages for those employed in care sectors is another important measure to take, and this is where social partners clearly have a role to play.’

She adds that ‘what is needed is a coherent and integrated policy approach, in which care provision and leave facilities are matched with a better organisation of work and working time and more flexibility for workers. This is one reason why we cannot accept the current pressure at national and EU level for longer working hours. The proposal to give workers returning from maternity leave the right to request changes to their working hours is a welcome one; in our view, however, this right should not be limited to young mothers but extended to all workers and without restricting it to people with specific care obligations.’

See also ETUC position on the second stage consultation of the social partners at Community level on the reconciliation of professional, private and family life