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How to improve work-life balance for working parents and caregivers

February 22nd 2016

Equinet reply to European Commission consultation on possible action to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working parents and caregivers

Purpose of the consultation

In August 2015, the Commission published a "Roadmap" for the initiative ‘A new start to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families’ to replace the 2008 Commission proposal to revise the Maternity Leave Directive[1]. The objective for this initiative is to increase the participation of women in the labour market by modernising and adapting the current EU legal and policy framework to today’s labour market to allow for parents with children and/or dependent relatives to better balance family and work life, allow for a greater sharing of care responsibilities between women and men, and to strengthen gender equality in the labour market.

In line with Article 154(2) TFEU, the Commission has launched the first stage consultation with the European social partners to obtain their views on the possible direction of European Union action, in particular on legislative measures concerning family leaves and flexible working arrangements that could address these challenges. In accordance with Article 155 TFEU, during the first stage consultation social partners may inform the Commission on their wish to initiate a negotiation process for a social partner’s agreement. In such a case, the Commission suspends its initiative for the duration of the negotiations. If these are successfully concluded, social partners may request their agreement be implemented by the Commission presenting a proposal for a Council Decision.

Legislative and policy measures can be complementary elements in a package in order to improve work-life balance. Therefore the roadmap also outlines possible non-legislative options for the way forward, including comprehensive policy guidance to Member States in the area of work-life balance, as well as reinforced monitoring, better use of EU funds and knowledge-sharing activities.

The purpose of this consultation is to gather views on the development and implementation of a range of possible tools at EU-level to support work-life balance.

Equinet’s response

Equinet partially agrees with the description of the challenges outlined. However there must also be a focus on equal treatment; equality bodies report high levels of pregnancy related discrimination, discrimination in taking up leave and flexible work arrangements. Pay transparency is also needed. A second challenge identified includes gender stereotypes or gendered roles. They create and maintain a segregated labor market (horizontally/vertically) and impact the work-life balance possibilities of all. Specific action should be developed to tackle this at both European and national level.

The background document outlines several key policies that have a positive impact on work-life balance and women’s participation in the labour market. These policy areas include:

  • Childcare
  • Long-term care services
  • Family-related leave arrangements for both women and men
  • Flexible working arrangements for both women and men
  • Tax-benefit systems that make work pay for both partners

In addition, Equinet believes that mainstreaming an equality perspective and addressing gender stereotypes in all proposed policy areas is essential to positively impact women’s participation in the labour market and work-life balance.

Policy measures

The most important measures to improve work-life balance and female labour market participation in your country in Equinet’s opinion, are:

  • Improving the possibilities and/or incentives for men, in particular, to take-up caring responsibilities and work-life balance measures (such as leave and/or flexible working arrangements)
  • Better facilitating transitions back to work after taking maternity/parental leave (e.g., adapting workplaces to better allow for breastfeeding, informing them of employment promotion and training opportunities while they are on leave)
  • Improving the availability of childcare (e.g., number of places)
  • Improving the affordability of childcare
  • These are closely followed by:
  • Improving the possibilities and/or incentives for parents and other people with dependent family members to take-up caring responsibilities and work-life balance measures (such as leave and/or flexible working arrangements)
  • Improving the quality of childcare
  • Improving the availability of formal long-term care services, including home/community-based services
  • Improving the affordability of formal long-term care services
  • Improving the quality of formal long-term care services
  • Improving the availability of disability-related home support
  • Improving support measures for people with ill/disabled/frail relatives (e.g., financial support, support services)
  • Removing tax-benefit disincentives for parents/people with caring responsibilities to enter the labour market (e.g., tax disincentives for the lower earning partner to work, benefit traps).

Additionally, it is important to raise employers’ awareness about these issues and impose positive duties on employers to accommodate work and family life. Equality bodies’ experience reveals that positive duties enshrined in law are most effective.

EU Level Action

There a need for further EU-level action on measures to address work-life balance challenges, and there is a need to improve the EU-level legislative framework in order to address the challenges of work-life balance, for example in relation to maternity leave, parental leave, flexible working arrangements, carers’ leave and/or paternity leave. Equinet hopes for improved implementation of existing legislation. An explicit legal mandate to work on the ground of family status in EU legislation would enable equality bodies to develop a stronger focus on work-life balance and ensure non-discriminatory implementation of existing measures. It would be important to offer more support to social partners in updating agreements on leave arrangements and fixed/part-time work. Furthermore, certain rights should be introduced: flexible work arrangements (for both men and women), paternity and carer leave, as well as improved protection for pregnant or breastfeeding workers.

There is a need for strengthened monitoring at EU-level on measures to address work-life balance challenges. The EU could support further exchanges of good practice among Member States and stakeholders in this area. The EU could develop meaningful benchmarks in the area of work-life balance policies that could be monitored, for example, through the European Semester process. Those benchmarks could cover childcare, long-term care services, family-related leave arrangements for both men and women and flexible working arrangements for both women and men. Also, there could be a benchmark on employers’ positive duties using transparency (cf. Commission Recommendation C(2014)1405); equal sharing of care responsibilities; flexible working hours for men/women; and gender stereotypes.
Although the EU financially supports Member States in their implementation of work-life balance policies through its funds, notably the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund, we do not find the current funds and their regulations effective in supporting work-life balance. “Bodies responsible for promoting (…) gender equality and non-discrimination” are included in the regulations governing the Structural and Investment Funds. Yet Equinet members report low levels of engagement at national level. Failure to use expertise of equality bodies results in less effective use of the funds in support of work-life balance. Commission could include equality bodies in monitoring the funds at program level, with obligations to include them in national monitoring committees.

The EU could provide clearer guidance to national/regional/local authorities on how existing EU funds could be used to financially support work-life balance. There a need for further awareness raising activities on work-life balance policies. The main target groups for any awareness-raising activities, in our opinion, are national authorities, employers and the general public.

The following possible new EU-level measures could be very effective in addressing work-life balance challenges;

  • Improved EU-level legislation
  • Strengthened EU-level policy guidance
  • Enhanced monitoring of work-life balance issues at EU-level and public reporting of the findings
  • More exchanges of good practice amongst Member States and stakeholders
  • EU-level benchmarks
  • Strengthened EU-level financial support
  • Clearer guidance to national/regional/local authorities on how existing EU funds can be used
  • Further awareness-raising activities
  • Other measures: Involve equality bodies in planning, implementing and monitoring policies on reconciliation of work-life balance at Member State and EU levels. Tie use of relevant EU funds to benchmarks

We think that the effectiveness of the above individual measures could be increased by combining them with others.

Equality bodies’ mandate is implementation of existing non-discrimination and equality legislation. In order to successfully fulfil that mandate, independence, adequate resources and powers, and EU level guidance/standards for these are needed. An explicit mandate on family ground status would also enable equality bodies to address gender stereotypes, work-life balance, pregnancy and gender-based discrimination more effectively. Currently, these areas suffer due to lack of resources as well as lack of explicit legal mandate. Continued support to the platform for exchange of best practices among equality bodies is needed. The focus of the Roadmap on statutory leave provisions, flexibility in workplace and care services is welcome. Following through on the legislative proposals in the Roadmap is necessary to attain the goal of work-life balance, as equality bodies report significant gaps in relevant policies at member state level. Positive duties enshrined in law or guidance for employers to accommodate reconciliation of work and family life may also be considered. The European Commission could usefully engage equality bodies in planning/shaping future instruments foreseen in the Roadmap. Currently, there is a failure to use the expertise of equality bodies in planning/implementing relevant policies at member state level, despite such policies often being financed using EU funds. Strengthening this engagement at program level is desirable.