Let’s face it. Becoming a parent is a huge undertaking. It is not simply an issue of financial security and job stability. It is a period of adaptation where the life of both parents and their children is changed substantially. The importance of family life needs to be recognised. Incentivising family-friendly measures at work; breaking the stereotypes of women as caretakers and men as breadwinners must be encouraged.
Under Maltese law, one can find different types of leave. A pregnant woman is entitled to maternity leave lasting for an uninterrupted period of 18 weeks. The first 14 weeks are paid by the employer whereas the subsequent four (4) weeks are paid at minimum wage through Social Security. One may observe that this isn’t too bad. So why fight for a longer maternity leave?
The answer is simple. A longer maternity leave not only safeguards the wellbeing of new mothers and children, but also encourages women to return to the labour market. The opportunity to gradually phase back into their job during the last four (4) weeks of maternity leave will also be an encouragement for new mothers and should be considered. This is being said in the context that in Malta between January to March 2017 the participation rate of women stood at 53.0% %. This is among the lowest rates within the European Union.
But what about the man? This is where the situation is strikingly contrasting as new fathers, by law, are granted leave on full pay of one (1) day on the birth of a child. This is what is referred to as ‘birth leave’, commonly also known as ‘paternity leave’. As is, birth leave does not cater for the possibility of complications during childbirth, or importantly, for the need of new fathers to bond with their newborn. It also sends a clear message that the caring role and family responsibilities should mainly be borne by the woman. This issue is being discussed in the draft EU Directive on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers proposing 10 working days of paternity leave paid at a sick leave rate when the child is born.
The draft directive also addresses parental leave. Discussions within the EU are currently proposing that parental leave is extended to 4 months to be paid at sick pay level and can be taken up until the child reaches the age of 12 with the possibility of flexible uptake with a use it or lose it basis. This would be a huge achievement since situation as it stands, parents are eligible to parental leave for four (4) months of unpaid leave if they have been in continuous unemployment with the same employer for a period of at least 12 months – and this is only until the child reaches 8 years of age. This way, parents and carers will profit from better work-life balance which will have affirmative influence on the participation of women in employment resulting in higher earnings and career progression which will positively impact their and their families’ economic prosperity, social inclusion and health.
Similarly, companies will benefit from a wider talent pool and a more motivated and productive labour force, as well as less absenteeism. The rise in female employment will also contribute to addressing the challenge of demographic ageing and ensure the State’s long term financial stability. These developments can be seen in Sweden with very successful results. New parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of paid leave. Eighteen (18) weeks are reserved for mothers and ninety (90) paid paternity days reserved just for fathers on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. It is worth noting that Sweden has the highest rate of women’s employment in the EU-27 with 71.8%.
To conclude, having access to paid leave does not only benefit parents! But children too! Maternity leave contributes to improved child health outcomes like higher birth weights, fewer premature births and reduced infant mortality. When men take paternity leave, they’re more engaged as fathers and develop stronger bonds with their children. What the State and employers need to realise is that society has changed and consequently, legislation and work conditions need to adapt to the new needs of different family structures. In a market that is becoming increasingly competitive, one cannot continue to view employees solely in terms of productivity.