Taking the EU directive on work-life balance off the page will require determined trade-union efforts, including in challenging prejudices.
Earlier this year, the European Union adopted legislation—the Work-Life Balance Directive—designed to help parents and carers to combine their working and family lives. A step forward? Definitely. But it is by no means the end of the battle to give women equal opportunities in the labour market and to enable workers to care for their children and other dependants in a fair, humane and stress-free way.
Consequently, trade unions at European, national and local levels have been actively engaged—not only in pushing EU governments to transpose the law as rapidly and comprehensively as possible, but also in negotiating for even better work-life balance arrangements. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has now published a report on the state of play in ten member states—outcome of the #Rebalance research project—and a toolkit to help union members work towards higher standards.
In 2018 the employment rate of women in the EU reached 67 per cent, compared with 79 per cent for men, even though women are increasingly well—and even better—qualified. The EU’s target is 75 per cent employment overall by 2020 but women still lag behind. The current disparity costs Europe an estimated €370 billion per year, or 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product. It can only be corrected by a fairer work-life balance.
Reconciling work and family care is a concern for workers in every sector and member state, throughout their working lives. Yet, across Europe, women still shoulder the bulk of responsibility for caring and this has an impact on their working lives, often forcing them to take part-time or lower-paid jobs or drop out of the labour market altogether. Work-life balance entails a combination of measures allowing men to play a greater role in childcare and giving women access to flexible working, public services and childcare. It means that governments must recognise the diversity of family life in the 21st century.
The Rebalance report highlights the important role of European social dialogue in tailoring EU legislation. In 1996, employers and unions reached a first framework agreement on parental leave which led to an EU directive, while the 2015-2017 Work Programme of the social partners covered parental leave, childcare and a gender equality toolkit. The ETUC insists that trade unions must now be consulted and involved in the process of converting the Work-Life Balance Directive into national law.
The new directive sets minimum standards but through collective bargaining unions can build on the basic legal rights, securing extra protection for carers as well as the full implementation of those rights. Trade unions have been at the forefront of promoting better work-life balance measures that address workers’ needs, which is why the EU needs actively to promote collective bargaining and the exchange of good practices.
The study ranges across 13 economic sectors—including health and social services, transport, local government, commerce and education—in ten countries with very diverse social and political landscapes. It maps six categories of work-life balance measures, among them paternity and parental leave, flexible working, long-term care and childcare, and economic incentives.
It finds flexible working arrangements to be the most widespread. Collective agreements have also increased time allowance and payment for paternity leave, and unions have undertaken awareness-raising to overcome prejudices and encourage men to take up parental leave. Many fathers still prefer to transfer their entitlements to their partners if they have the option and, while legislation is needed to reverse this trend, the research also highlights examples of progress through collective bargaining.
In Finland, including legal rights in collective agreements means that unions can monitor their application. In Portugal, agreements help to implement existing legislation, while in Spain negotiating for higher pay allows couples to make full use of leave entitlements. In Sweden, unions pursue access to good-quality, affordable public facilities for older people as well as children.
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Unions have to examine their own practices, the study admits. Most negotiators are still male and see priorities from a masculine perspective. Women’s committees play an important but tough role in pushing gender equality higher up the negotiating agenda.
The toolkit advises trade-union negotiators on how to overcome obstacles put up by governments or employers. For example, in approving the directive, member states lowered payment levels. Fathers are entitled to the equivalent of sick pay during their minimum ten days’ paternity leave but in many EU countries sickness payments fall well below 66 per cent of previous earnings (see graph), creating a further disincentive for men to take leave.
Sick-pay associated paternity pay (% of previous earnings) across EU28
Work-life balance measures must be sustainable, concludes the report, and renewed when renegotiation takes place. In Slovenia and Germany, for example, continuity of provision is included in collective agreements. And governments have a crucial role in guaranteeing access to affordable childcare and good-quality public services.
The Rebalance report puts forward a wide range of recommendations at all levels. The EU should establish binding targets for child and elderly care and take action to close the gender pay-and-pensions gap. Member states should introduce legislation to promote gender equality, ringfence a proportion of gross domestic product for care provision and guarantee fair pension rights. National social partners are reminded that good work-life balance is an investment in productivity, while trade unions are urged to set up a global monitoring system for work-life balance measures, share good practices between countries and sectors and apply gender mainstreaming.
The report shows that there is a strong correlation between robust social dialogue, better gender equality and good work-life balance. Trade unions are doing their bit, but partnership and action across society are needed to create a fair balance between work, leisure and family life for both women and men.
Juliane Bir is head of trade union policy at the European Trade Union Confederation and co-ordinates ETUC priorities on, among other issues, social dialogue, collective bargaining and gender.