The EU debates increasing maternal leave

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Some women have a lot more mother’s days than others.

Glory Francke, an American teaching in Sweden, left her job when she had her first daughter in 2002 and remained at home and on salary through the arrival of her second daughter in 2003. Then she went to law school while her husband Filip stayed home nine months with the girls while getting paid. 

Francke, now with a law degree and a little boy to boot, called the arrangement a “fantastic privilege.”

If Edite Estrela gets her way, all moms in the European Union will have more such privilege.

Estrela, a member of the European Parliament (EP) from Portugal’s Socialist party, is leading the charge to establish a minimum standard of 20 weeks of maternity leave at full pay throughout the 27 member states.

It’s legislation like this that spawns criticism of the European “nanny state,” a term used to deride the involvement of government to such a great extent in the private lives of citizens. Given Europe's looming debt crisis, Estrela’s draft has generated loud opposition. 

Due to those voices, a full vote was postponed from March to May to allow for an assessment to be conducted on the financial impact the measures could have on business. That delay is now expected to last at least until July. 

Estrela’s recommendations are a considerable upgrade on the European Commission initiative that, under EU procedure, forms the basis for her report. The proposal by the commission, the EU's administrative arm, would increase the basic minimum of three months leave, established in 1992, to four months. It would recommend but not require full payment of salary for the 18-week period. Both proposals include a compulsory leave of six weeks; that is, new mothers would be required to stay away from their jobs. 

Estrela believes 20 weeks is just the right amount of time to “give women time to recover from their confinement, encourage breastfeeding, and enable a mother to forge a strong bond with her child.” It’s also not so long, she says, that it would be a hindrance to workplace advancement. The recommendations also give fathers two weeks off at full pay.

EU governments always have the right to do more than the minimum standard. The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania and Slovakia offer mothers up to three years off with varying degrees of pay, for example, while others, including Belgium, Ireland, Malta and Portugal give the three-month EU minimum.

According to a survey done by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Sweden tops the rankings for overall parental benefits, offering the most advantageous combination of both time and financial compensation. For each child up to the age of 8, 480 days of leave are available and can be shared between the two parents in a number of different arrangements at a high rate of pay, with a cap on the total. 

Nordic neighbors Denmark and Finland offer similar plans. Finnish diplomat Piritta Asunmaa says she took six months off with her first child, at full and then 60 percent pay, and her husband used the remainder of their combined leave. She received 11 months for her second child, using maternal and parental leave together. 

Estrela also wants women to be absolved of having to work night shifts and overtime for at least 10 weeks before the baby’s due date — longer if deemed medically necessary — and for the entire time a mother may choose to breastfeed. 

Fiona O’Farrell, an Irish mom of two who was working as an operations officer for an airline when her second child was born, says that measure alone would have made her life less of the “horror story” it was at the time as she tried to balance care of her newborn baby and split shifts at work. O’Farrell recalls she would sometimes have no more than eight hours off to go home, nurse the baby, sleep, feed him again and get back to the office.

All of these benefits would also be available to adoptive parents of a child under one year old and to unmarried couples.

Under Estrela’s proposal, EU governments would also be required to put more effort into recognizing the signs of post-natal depression, helping women cope and removing the stigma of a condition estimated to affect 10-15 percent of mothers.

One of the driving forces behind a delay — and an eventual rejection — of the proposal is Marina Yannakoudakis, a member of the European Parliament from Britain’s Conservative party and spokeswoman of the women's committee for the European Conservatives and Reformists parliamentary grouping. She says the proposals will be too expensive for government and business and that opposition will increase once the impact assessment is in. “I hope that, once they realize the damage that could be done to business, [members of parliament] will rethink the plans,” she said.

Estrela has economic arguments of her own. She contends that by the time the new laws would take effect after a five-year phase-in, member states should be out of the current financial crisis.

“On the other hand,” she said, “the birth rate in the European Union is low and families should not be penalized for having children, they should be encouraged.”

But Yannakoudakis has another point that strikes at the heart of the matter for proponents of the longer leave. She says that regardless of legislation put in place to guarantee new mothers get their jobs back, the prospect of longer leave times are all but guaranteed to increase indirect discrimination at the workplace and “make young women less employable.” That, she said, “would reduce a woman’s right to choose.”

Glory Francke says she did see that happen in Sweden, with women being inevitably stuck a few rungs down on the corporate ladder after choosing to spend such long periods out of the office.

And that’s why there’s a small patch of unexpected common ground between the conservative movement against expanding maternity leave and women in the countries that already seem to be so far beyond that: Some Swedish women have complained they don’t want to be forced to take the first six weeks off after the birth of their child.

The dilemma of fantastic privilege?