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Extending maternity leave throughout the EU was the gist of draft legislation passed by a committee of the European Parliament this week.
The MEPs (members of the European Parliament) on the Women’s Rights Committee backed the committee’s report which suggested updating the Pregnant Workers Directive. They voted to increase the minimum compulsory maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks, at full pay. Six of these weeks would have to be taken immediately after childbirth.
They also proposed a completely new EU right—the right to at least two weeks of fully paid paternity leave within the period of maternity leave.
These proposals have aroused controversy around Europe. Member states’ governments and business groups think that the price-tag is unreasonably high, particularly in this economic downturn when many businesses are struggling. They feel that the Directive should merely ensure minimum standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers and not add new costs to the already overburdened social security systems and employers. They also complain that the proposal introduces undue complexity and uncertainty since most countries already have well-developed and adequate maternity leave provisions. Some even warn that such extensive maternity benefits could boomerang against the intended beneficiaries, that is, employers may be reluctant to hire women of childbearing age if they are likely to take lengthy maternity leaves.
In Sweden, where fathers are entitled to generous paternity leave according to national rules, many criticize this proposal for being “mother-fixated”. They fear that fathers who want to be home with their babies during the first six weeks will be prevented from doing so, since those weeks are set aside for the mothers.
The draft also prevents firing pregnant workers from the beginning of the pregnancy until at least 6 months following the end of the maternity leave. Any dismissal during this time must be formally justified in writing. Additionally, upon return to work, after maternity leave, women must be able to return to their jobs or equivalent posts. One more feature is that women must not be obliged to work at night during the 10 weeks before childbirth and throughout the period of breastfeeding. What is more, all the rules would apply to domestic workers and self-employed workers.
The proposals will be presented to the full European Parliament in this month, but passage is far from certain given the stiff resistance from several member states.