Work-life balance: Commission seeks to close gender gap on EU labour market

Under the so-called “European Pillar of Social Rights”, the Commission presented the Communication “An initiative to support work-life balance for working parents and carers” on 26 April. The Communication puts forward a package of legislative and non-legislative measures aimed at reducing women’s under-representation in employment, in particular by helping them to reconcile their working and private responsibilities. At the same time, the proposal would reinforce existing rights while introducing others for both men and women to foster gender equality and promote non-discrimination.

The difficulty of finding a compromise in this area is demonstrated by the fact that a similar proposal was made by the Commission in 2008 to amend the so-called Maternity Leave Directive of 1992, but after it was blocked in the Council the Commission had to withdraw it in 2015. Subsequently, the Commission decided to submit a new proposal that, according to them, represents a better compromise and also encompasses the social developments of the last two decades. It is argued that this will allow parents with children or those with dependent relatives to better balance caring and professional responsibilities.

The Communication includes a new proposal for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers, which contains several binding rules that the Member States would have to implement into their national laws, with regards to taking a period of leave or applying for flexible working arrangements. It is important to clarify that these would only be minimum requirements; Member States are further encouraged by the Commission to establish stronger measures.

Proposal for a Directive (legislative measures)

The proposal for a Directive introduces rules in four main areas to further implement the principle of equality between men and women with regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work. First of all, fathers would be given ten working days of paternity leave, paid at the minimum sick pay level, on the occasion of their child being born (Article 4). The Commission believes that this will encourage fathers to embrace their role in caring for the child, thus becoming more likely to use their right to parental leave later.

Secondly, the Commission proposes a minimum of four months’ leave for both parents without the opportunity to transfer these months between parents (Article 5), in order to discourage the usual practice of second earners (usually mothers) alone taking both parents’ leave. The Article also clarifies that employers should allow parents to take their leave in flexible forms, such as in blocks or as part-time employees (or both). Any employer imposing a restriction on the parental leave (e.g. postponement) would have to include a very convincing written explanation, such as justified fears for the enterprise’s proper functioning.

Thirdly, workers with dependents (such as small children or a seriously ill relative), would have five days of “carer’s leave” every year (Article 7), and they would also be allowed to take time off in the event of acute illnesses or accidents within the family (Article 8). The reasoning behind this is that those workers who have to care for small children or sick relatives are more susceptible to having a distorted work-life balance and therefore are more likely to drop out of the labour market.

Lastly, parents of children no older than 12 would be allowed to request flexible working arrangements for a reasonable amount of time, with the right to return to the original working pattern at the end of the agreed period (Article 9). In fact, Article 10 underlines that parents returning to their positions have to be allowed to return to their pre-leave jobs with same working conditions as before (including any improvement or promotion that they would have been entitled to if they hadn’t gone on parental leave).  Although employers will not be forced to accept these requests, they would have to provide an adequate justification for any refusal.

As mentioned before, these obligations only represent minimum requirements that Member States could choose to surpass. In any case, they would be obliged to appoint national bodies to oversee enforcement and ensure that penalties are effective, proportionate and dissuasive. The Directive also reiterates that parents cannot be discriminated against (Article 11) or dismissed (Article 12) on the grounds of taking parental leave. In the latter instance, the burden of proof is reversed; in other words, the employer has to prove that the dismissal was based on other objective reasons not related to the parental leave.

Better data, monitoring and funding (non-legislative measures)

These four concrete rules would be complemented with widespread non-legislative actions in three areas, detailed in the Communication. First of all, the Commission plans to advance the monitoring of the transposition of EU legislation into national law, along with improved data collection by Eurostat and more efficient sharing of best practices. Moreover, the Commission will seek to provide funding for new and innovative schemes to keep parents (and especially mothers) in the labour market, especially via the Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) and the European Social Fund, as well as through other structural and Investment Funds.  

Secondly, the Commission believes that there is a need to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of childcare places to allow parents more freedom to continue working after the birth of their child. The so-called Barcelona targets were set in 2002, but many Member States were not able to achieve them, especially for children younger than three years old. Issues such as insufficient capacity, regional variation, distance, opening hours and eligibility criteria have led to only 30% of children under three years old being cared for in childcare establishments. To rectify this, the Commission plans to further support the Member States via improved EU-level data collection, revised and extended funding systems (including via the European Fund for Strategic Investment and through Public-Private Partnerships), as well as through general guidance and monitoring.

Thirdly, it is highlighted in the Communication that the tax and benefits systems in some Member States discourage parents from both entering (or staying in) employment. For example, many countries offer tax deductions and other benefits for families with a single earner, thus discouraging second earners (who are mostly the mothers) to find employment. The Commission therefore proposes to identify the country-specific obstacles in terms of economic disincentives through both monitoring and improved EU-level data collection, as well as sharing best practices with social partners and Member States.


Social policy is an area where Member States are usually wary of any EU intervention, since most of them regard it as a distinct national attribute that can also be used to raise their competitiveness vis-à-vis other Member States. Therefore, long and heated debates are expected in the Council.

At the same time, European business associations, such as BusinessEurope, UEAPME, and EuroCommerce have voiced their opposition towards the binding measures, warning that they will undermine the EU’s long-term growth potential through increased uncertainty and higher costs for businesses, especially SMEs. BusinessEurope has also criticised the proposal for potentially repealing the so-called Parental Leave Directive, which is a transposition of an agreement by European social partners and therefore should not be modified by EU institutions. On the other hand, both the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the European Public Service Union (EPSU) are in favour of the proposal, although they both see it as an unambitious attempt that does not properly address the issues concerning the gender gap and maternity leave.

Next steps

Parallel to publishing the proposal and the Communication, the Commission has launched a public consultation for stakeholders to submit their suggestions and objections until 23 July 2017. Debates are expected to start in the second half of 2017 in the Parliament, where the responsible Committee is EMPL (Employment and Social Affairs). In the Council, discussions are understood to start in June.

If adopted, Member States would be required to transpose the rules into national law within two years after their entry into force. On the same day, the Parental Leave Directive (Council Directive 2010/18/EU) would be repealed.

Additional facts

Official titles:

Proposal for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers and repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU [2017/0085 (COD)]

Commission Communication on an initiative to support work-life balance for working parents and carers [COM(2017) 252 final]

Proposal Date: 26 April 2017

Legal Basis: Art. 153 of the Treaty of the Function of the European Union

Procedure: Ordinary Legislative Procedure