As part of the European Pillar of Social Rights, the European Commission is proposing a new package that would establish new or higher minimum standards in four areas:

  1. Paternity leave: Fathers/second parents will be able to take at least 10 working days of paternity leave around the time of birth of the child, compensated at least at the level of sick pay.
  2. Parental leave: Guaranteeing four months of leave per parent, at least at sick pay level, that can be taken in a flexible way until the child is 12 years old.
  3. Carers’ leave: Workers caring for a seriously ill or dependent relative will be able to take five days of leave per year compensated at least at sick pay level.
  4. Flexible working arrangements: The right to request reduced working hours, flexible working hours and flexibility at work will be extended to all working parents of children up to 12 and carers with dependent relatives.

In addition, a number of non-legislative measure are being proposed to protect parents from discrimination, encourage gender-balanced use of parental leave, make better use of European funds to improve long-term care and childcare services, and to remove economic disincentives for second earners which prevent women from accessing the labour market or working full-time.

Shortcomings of the initiative

The European Social Network (ESN) acknowledges the importance of this initiative in fostering gender equality, strengthening the rights to parental leave and highlighting the importance of introducing rights for informal carers across Europe. However, the lack of concrete action on supporting carers and the one-dimensional view of childcare as a labour market issue, risks that the package will fall short of improving the situation of the most vulnerable members of our societies and their carers.

With regards to childcare, the proposed directive mentions the importance of affordability and quality of childcare, but it will be important to introduce specific quality standards against which childcare can be assessed, and to spell out what ‘affordable’ means. Namely, how Member States are expected to subsidise childcare to ensure that poorer families will be able to afford childcare and to avoid the creation of a system where the quality of childcare varies significantly depending on the economic means of its clients. Moreover, take up of parental leave tends to be low in countries that have introduced legislation on this, as the Commission acknowledges. The proposal lacks concrete suggestions on how to make sure that employers support fathers who want to take parental leave, and how to incentivise fathers themselves to take it.

Care for older and dependent relatives

The proposal states that the availability, accessibility and affordability of the care infrastructure are crucial to allow carers to stay in or join the labour market. Yet, the only concrete measure introduced in this proposal is the entitlement to a rather minimal amount of care leave – 5 days a year. No tangible proposals are made to improve the care infrastructure.

The proposal does not specify what ‘flexible working arrangements for carers’ would amount to in practice in order to allow carers to keep their jobs while adapting to changing care needs of their relatives. The European Commission merely expects to monitor flexible working arrangements as part of the European Semester and to share best practices on flexible working arrangements and on initiatives such as labels and certifications for employers with a good work-life balance. It will be important to monitor closely which working carers will benefits from flexible working given that larger firms with established worker representation might be more likely to offer these. Low-paid workers in precarious work will find it most difficult to demand flexible work to care for dependent relatives, therefore their situation demands additional support.

The key problem that in many countries the care responsibility lies solely with the – mostly female – family members due to a lack of community care options, illustrates the need for clear proposals to improve the provision of these. Without affordable, accessible respite care options, carers will not be able to take out time for themselves.

Potential EU actions on supporting carers

As ESN has highlighted in its European Semester reports over the last three years, access, affordability and quality of care services are a critical issue in many Member States, yet the European Commission’s country reports rarely mention these. ESN would welcome it if the European Semester included issues related to social services and care as this would raise awareness of these issues and allow for more comparison and mutual learning in this area.

Finally, the proposal lacks definitive guidelines on how Member States will be incentivised to use the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the European Fund for Strategic Investments to invest in care services.

Overall, this proposal addresses some important issues but falls short of facilitating a truly ‘new start’ for parents and carers.

Resources:

European Commission: Factsheet ‘A new start to support work-life balance for parents and carers’