In the run up to the European Parliament vote on the proposed revision of the so-called ‘Maternity Leave Directive’, UK business leaders have been descending en masse on Brussels in an attempt to block legislation designed to protect women’s rights and economic independence throughout the 27 country block. If successful, it is the 26 other member states of the EU which will have to pay the price, gender equality associations are warning.
‘It is absolutely scandalous that short-sighted business interests from one member state should put at risk the human rights of millions of women throughout the EU, as well as the sustainability of European economies’, says Brigitte Triems, President of the European Women’s Lobby. ‘For UK MEPs to vote to block this legislation would be misguided; for the representatives of the peoples of all the other European countries to follow their lead would be a serious democratic failure.’
Under UK law, women are entitled to 39 weeks of paid maternity leave, and a total leave period of 52 weeks. Employers advance 90% pay during the first six weeks, 93% of which is subsequently reimbursed by the state. Increasing the duration of fully-paid leave to 20 weeks would, according to the British Equality and Human Rights Commission, cost the state an extra £1.3 billion.
The long duration of maternity leave (as opposed to parental leave provisions in most member states encouraging a sharing of care responsibilities), combined with the financial burden on employers, has led to high levels of discrimination against women in the UK labour market, and a record-high gender pay gap of 21.4%. According to a 2007 survey cited by the British Equal Opportunities Commission, 70% of employment agencies have been asked by their clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or women of childbearing age. British women are 23% less likely to be employed than men and women with a child under 11 are 49% less likely to be employed compared with men. There is also evidence that in the UK discrimination again women in the workplace – with the loss of tax revenue and increased welfare benefits it causes – costs between £15 billion and £25 billion each year, adding up to as much as 2% of GDP.1
‘The UK would very much benefit from changing its maternity leave provisions, and EU legislation could be the trigger for this’, says Ms. Triems. ‘In the long run, all member states stand to benefit from increased equality.’
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