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Strong European maternity leave provisions key to sustainable societies, says European Women’s Lobby

[Brussels, 15 October 2010] As the Members of the European Parliament prepare to vote on European maternity leave provisions, women’s organisations from across the EU are mobilising to back European legislation guaranteeing at least 20 weeks fully paid leave for new mothers, and two for fathers. ‘The 736 European parliamentarians are not just being asked to cast a vote on a detail of legislation’, says Brigitte Triems, President of the European Women’s Lobby (EWL). ‘They are being asked to make a fundamental societal choice: whether or not to make it possible for women living in Europe to have children and at the same continue to participate in the labour market and secure their economic independence.’

The vote on the revision of the Maternity Leave Directive is scheduled for 20 October. The 1992 legislation provides for 14 weeks maternity leave but without any binding measures on pay. The amendments proposed in the Estrela Report (so-called after its MEP Rapporteur, Edite Estrela), in particular as regards full pay, have been controversial, with the business lobby vocally claiming the burden on employers will be excessive.

‘These provisions are an imperative to ensure human rights and gender equality, but they are equally an imperative to ensure Europe’s social and economic sustainability’, counters Myria Vassiliadou, EWL Secretary General. ‘With our ageing population, we simply cannot afford to exclude women from the labour market, and we cannot afford ever plummeting birth-rates! Maternity, paternity and parental leave provisions are immediate investments in better, more equal societies, and long-term investments in healthy economies.’

The high return to investment in women’s rights is a widely accepted development principle. According to a report presented by the Swedish Presidency of the EU in 2009, EU GDP would rise almost 30% if gender gaps were eliminated. The growth potential is as high as 35% in the UK, the Netherlands, Greece and Malta. [1]

According to the EWL, the focus on employers is misleading: ‘In 24 out of 27 Member States, it is the state and not employers who takes on the costs of maternity leave provisions’, explains Ms. Triems. ‘This is most certainly a worthwhile investment. European governments spent trillions of Euros in the last years rescuing banks, car and construction companies; the rescue scheme for UK banks alone cost taxpayers up to £850 billion. [2] Investing in mothers and children costs far less and is investing in the future of society as a whole. This is exactly the right time to invest a comparably low amount of money to empower half of the current population – not to mention the next generation.’

The EWL is calling for full pay, without restrictions or ceilings, for a duration of 20 weeks. ‘This time span comes closer to giving women the choice of following international standards on breastfeeding, [3] and more generally empowers women to take as much time to recuperate as they choose to after giving birth, and does not curtail their chances on the labour market’, says Myria Vassiliadou. The OECD found in 2006 that in countries where the maternity leave provisions are the longest, female employment rates were also highest with over 80% in Iceland and over 70% in Denmark and Sweden -well above the OECD average of 57%. [4]

[1Löfström, Å. ‘Gender equality, economic growth and employment, 2009‘. This report was presented at the conference held under the
Swedish Presidency ‘What does gender equality mean for growth and employment?’, Stockholm, 15-16 October 2009. These figures are an
estimation of the potential increase in GDP that would occur following the elimination of gender gaps, i.e. if women’s rates were to reach
the level of men’s rates in terms of employment, part-time work and productivity (measured by wages).

[3Including World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation recommendations

[4OECD, 2007, Babies and Bosses: Reconciling Work and Family Officer

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