How parental rights could go very wrong

The new law on parental leave sounds great. But employers say we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By Kate Hilpern
Click to follow
THE EU parental leave directive, due to become law by December, will give working parents three months' leave to be taken at any time before the child's eighth birthday. Sounds great. Sounds perfect. So why are the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), The Industrial Society and even the London Chamber of Commerce (LCC) all claiming the law could be bad news for employees - particularly women?

Dianah Worman, advisor in professional knowledge and information to the IPD, says that's largely because the leave will be unpaid. "So unless you have plenty of money, you may not be able to afford it, especially now the Government is considering ensuring that employees won't be able to take the leave in chunks of less than one whole week at a time. This could discriminate against low-paid parents who may have to sit in envy watching wealthier colleagues take advantage of the law."

Indeed, monitoring in the US of a similar law passed by President Bill Clinton's administration in 1993 shows that, although it was popular, take-up among poorer families was low. That's why Harriet Harman, former Secretary of State for Social Security, is campaigning for the leave to be paid. Ministers should not wait until paid parental leave becomes a necessity, she argues.

Ms Worman admits: "At first glance, Harman's suggestion seems to be a perfect solution. But, in reality, who would fund this enormous project? If the Government can't afford it, businesses certainly can't."

Employers claim many companies won't even be able to fund a system of unpaid leave, and the fight is on to get Government to compensate smaller firms who are forced to take on temporary cover. "If this doesn't happen, many employers are going to have every right to be negative about the legislation and that's not the way change should be implemented," Ms Worman warns. "It's another reason why the law may not be in the employee's interest. If you get the impression that taking some of your parental leave is going to land you with a black mark at work, you might think twice."

Even staff at the most family-friendly firms could suffer, Ms Worman adds. After five years' service at Apple Computer, for instance, staff are expected to take a one-month paid break, on to which they can add some annual leave. Likewise, at McDonald's, a paid leave of eight weeks is given to employees with 10 years' service. At Tesco, the chance to take an unpaid career break can enable staff to have up to five years off, even after having worked there for a relatively short time.

"By bringing set-in-stone regulations on parental leave into such companies, these kinds of schemes - which are more generous than the Government's - may have to be thrown out to make room for the new law,' said Ms Worman.

A survey, published last month by the British Chamber of Commerce, showed 78 per cent of its members intend to develop their own policy on parental leave. Some 94 per cent already allow leave for family emergencies, so the long-term impact of the new law could be to limit the opportunities for working parents.

The Industrial Society points to the risk that the legislation could make women less employable. "Consider the current situation with career breaks," said a society spokesperson. "Reports show that very few male employees take up the option in any of the 11 per cent of British organisations that offer them. Women, on the other hand, take it up more often and when they do, it's usually because of family commitments. When the new law comes in, employers may ask themselves if it's worth their while taking on a woman, who will inevitably cost them more than a man."

Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, has said that even current maternity rights made 45 per cent of IoD members think twice about hiring "young women" and claimed the introduction of parental leave rights - if paid - would certainly compound this. "Our members have to run businesses in a tough competitive environment and even our female members take the same attitude," Lea said. "It's not a matter of breaking the Sex Discrimination Act, but of running your firm to survive."

The bottom line is that with parental leave one size does not fit all. There will still be some room for negotiation within the directive and secretaries should ask at interview stage exactly how the policy will work within that company. Will you be able to take more than one week of the leave at a time? Will there be certain periods of the year when you won't be allowed to use it?How much notice will you have to give?

However, the reform proposals have at least raised the profile of this issue. The need for both mothers and fathers to ask employers for time off work to spend with their families has become more accepted than ever before.