Discussing work-life balance – tensions and possible solutions

Last week we had an interesting exchange on work-life balance with representatives of BUSINESSEUROPE, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the European Commission. The discussions focused on two main questions.

What are the issues at stake when it comes to work-life balance and reconciliation policies?

According to ETUC, two important aspects have been overlooked in the analysis carried out by the Commission in its paper accompanying the public consultation on work-life balance. The first element is the negative impact of austerity measures implemented by Member States on the organisation of work, the quantity and quality of care and public services in general – of which women are the prime users – and the payment of family-related leave. In addition, as a consequence of the economic downturn, in some countries the number of women who have been dismissed by their employers due to pregnancy has increased (The Guardian has written about this very issue today). The second missing aspect concerns the link between reconciliation policies and demographic change. Research shows that there is a strong connection between the optimal use of work-life balance options and an increase in the birth rate.

BUSINESSEUROPE shares most of the diagnoses made by the Commission and ETUC – but they differ on the solutions.

Social Platform and our members believe that reconciliation policies and services are crucial not only for workers, but also for job-seekers with caring responsibilities, particularly single parents. They also play an essential role in children’s personal development.

In the exchange it was highlighted that men do not make much use of paternity and parental leave when they are available. One of the most common reasons for this is the level of payment – in many countries, parental leave is not fully paid, or not paid at all. The question remains about who should cover the cost of care leave: employers, individuals or the government. Another explanation is prevailing stereotypical views on gender roles, with men as breadwinners and women staying at home to raise children.

What solutions should be proposed?

ETUC calls on the EU institutions to improve EU legislation on work-life balance, with the aim of modernising existing legislation, addressing shortcomings or a lack of legislation in some areas, and encouraging Member States’ to coordinate their reconciliation policies more closely. New EU legislation should focus on improving maternity leave so that it is fully paid and ensures protection against dismissal on account of pregnancy. ETUC also urges greater commitment to the adequate provision of services, particularly elderly care. On this point ETUC’s position closely reflects our own.

Social Platform’s opinion is that the EU institutions should play a stronger part in encouraging Member States’ investment in high quality essential services to improve work-life balance and increase women’s employment. We also think that the Commission should combine both legislative and non-legislative measures to improve work-life balance, reconciliation policies and gender equality.

BUSINESSEUROPE considers that legislative measures should be developed at national level. More emphasis should be put on measures that can increase women’s participation in the labour market, such as childcare and flexible working time arrangements. They agree that stereotypes represent an obstacle to progress in this area.

Social Platform, ETUC and the Commission representative agreed that EU legislation can help shape individual choices and fight stereotypes. While individual choices and stereotypes have an impact, it is not acceptable that women can still be discriminated against in the labour market due to pregnancy and motherhood. The EU has a clear role to play in legislating on this issue, and we will continue to engage in a dialogue with the Commission to try to get the best deal for men, women and families.