Sunday, October 05, 2008

"Without the fight against discrimination, you do not have a Social Europe"

The European Union is proposing the widespread adoption of a package of bills designed to address discrimination against women in the workplace. The recognition of the need for laws aimed at providing protection against social and economic injustices based on gender and race are sober reminders of both how far we've come and how much more has to be done in order to achieve socioeconomic justice for everyone. (GW)

Commission pushes for stronger rights for women workers

October 4, 2008

The EU executive today (3 October) presented a broad package aimed at helping women to reconcile their professional and private lives, particularly by improving conditions for self-employed and pregnant women.


A Commission Communication from April 2004 aimed to bring more women into the workforce and eliminate gender discrimination at work.

In March 2006, the EU executive followed up with a roadmap to achieve equality between men and women on issues such as parental leave, flexible working arrangements and care facilities.

The measures proposed in the package, which promotes a better balance between work, private and family life, are the result of a consultation that the Commission had launched among social partners in October 2006, calling for proposals on how to improve childcare and care for the elderly and disabled.

The main objectives of the package, which was presented by Employment Commissioner Vladimir Špidla today (3 October), are improving conditions for maternity leave, strengthening social protection measures for the self-employed and achieving better child care.

Longer maternity leave

The Commission proposed a directive that would extend maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, rule out lay-offs during this time and grant women more flexibility when taking leave. But the plan is likely to meet strong opposition from several member states, including Germany.

Indeed, the country's Ministry of Family Affairs argues that the initiative could have a boomerang effect, increasing the financial risk of employing young women and raising hurdles for those in search of a job.

Germany further argues that its existing legislation already goes far beyond what the Commission is proposing regarding the protection of maternity leave, lay-off protection and financial coverage.

Current legislation regarding maternity leave varies widely across EU member states, with the periods granted ranging from 14 weeks to 52 weeks, while not all countries offer paid leave.

Better rights for self-employed women

The EU executive will also present a proposal aimed at boosting the number of female entrepreneurs by offering them better protection, whether they are self-employed or working for their husband's company. It should also help women to remain at work independently of their family responsibilities.

More child care

The Commission will also present a report on the provision of childcare services, covering aspects such as accessibility, availability, cost and quality. The EU's aim is to provide childcare for at least 90% of children between the age of three and school age and at least 33% of those under three by 2010.

Anti-discrimination directive proves divisive

Before today's Commission presentation, EU employment ministers exchanged views on a Commission proposal for tighter anti-discrimination legislation covering mistreatment outside the workplace.

But ministers came nowhere near to reaching agreement, largely due to fierce opposition from the Czech Republic and Germany once again. German Family Affaris Minister Ursula von der Leyen told her EU counterparts that she wanted to examine whether a legal basis existed for legislation at the European level, stressing that Germany already had a "high level of protection."

The French Presidency wanted to go "as far as it can" with the directive, French Social Affairs Minister Xavier Bertrand said.

“Given the current economic challenges it is indispensable to have such piece of legislation,” he added.


EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Špidla stressed that the fight against discrimination, "regardless of its form" was "absolutely fundamental".

"Europe in the 21st century has to be a Europe without discrimination and a Europe for everybody," he said, adding: "Without the fight against discrimination, you do not have a Social Europe."

Commenting on the family package, the Commissioner said: "Having children too often costs women their income and their job prospects. [...] Our proposals to improve maternity leave will help women to combine work and family and also hold out benefits for men and families as a whole."

He considers childcare as "a vital ingredient in facing up to demographic ageing" as without proper support "parents are less likely to have children."

Philip Bushill-Matthews from the EPP-ED group said the maternity leave proposals were "ill-judged", claiming that those decisions should be made by national governments, not the EU.

Arguing along the line of the German government, he said that the proposal would create "extra costs", which might make small businesses "think twice about employing young women".

Elisabeth Schroedter from the Greens welcomed the Commission's proposal to extend maternity leave to 18 weeks, which she said was long overdue. But she criticised the Commission for "buckling" on lay-off protection. In the final text, it only has to be justified in written form. Furthermore, the period after which women can return from their maternity leave to their previous job was reduced from 12 to six months, the Green MEP criticises.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) welcomed the package as "timely and necessary", but at the same time criticised it is not far-reaching enough.

The European SME federation UEAPME siad it was pleased about the proposal on equal treatment between self-employed men and women, which gave the member "reasonable room to manoeuvre".

But it expressed its concern on the maternity leave proposal, argueing that "there is no evidence that the current rules are not sufficient". To the contrary, the initiative would create new difficulties and costs for small businesses.

UEAPME also criticised the timing of the initiative, which might "jeopardise" the European Social Partners' negotiations on the revision of the existing parental leave directive.

Next steps:

  • 15 Dec. 2008: EU Employment Council to discuss anti-discrimination and family package.


EU official documents


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