'Last chance' meeting on pregnant workers' deal

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Indy Politics
THE CHANCE of improved rights for pregnant women could be set back by up to three years if social affairs ministers fail to strike a compromise today.

In alliance with the European Commission and Parliament, Italian ministers have so far vetoed a watered-down package tabled by the United Kingdom and backed by the other governments.

British officials point out that unless there is agreement today at the meeting in Chepstow, Gwent, the proposed directive will 'fall' and the campaign for better benefits will have to start from the beginning. Lawyers believe that today's informal gathering is the last feasible opportunity to reach the required unanimous agreement before the deadline next Monday. The agenda for today's talks on employment and unemployment was amended to accommodate a vote on the issue.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, who will be presiding at the ministerial meeting, has come under considerable pressure to support maternity pay at 80 per cent of earnings, instead of the equivalent of sick pay in the present proposal.

Joanna Foster, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the EC's Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities, has sent a letter to Mrs Shephard reminding her of the committee's 'total opposition to equating childbirth with sickness'. Ms Foster also fears that maternity pay would be cut if sickness benefit were reduced.

Ms Foster said that she found it difficult to understand opposition to the 80 per cent option because for the great majority of member states it would involve no increased expenditure.

'No issue could be closer to the women of Europe,' she told Mrs Shephard. It was essential that a clear signal emerged showing that real progress towards equality was being made.

She said: 'A failure to secure adoption of a directive, which will herald improvements over time for women in all EC countries, would inevitably be seen by women to mean that Community policy on equal opportunities is marking time or is in regression.'

After fighting off more generous proposals, the United Kingdom is backing a plan to abolish the present two-year qualifying period and to introduce a system in which women would have a right to receive 14 weeks' wages at a minimum of statutory sick pay as soon as they start work. Two weeks' leave would be compulsory. At present, after two years' continuous employment, women are entitled to six weeks on 90 per cent of full pay and a further 12 weeks on maternity benefit of pounds 46.30 a week.

Out of 12 ministers due at Chepstow, only the Italian representative opposes the plan. Italy has received the backing of the European Commission for a proposal which would mean 16 weeks' maternity pay at a level at least 80 per cent of the woman's average wage.

In oppositon to the other 11 ministers, the Italians are also arguing that the 'burden of proof' should always lie with an employer in a dispute with a pregnant worker. They believe that it should be incumbent on the company to prove that it had not dismissed a woman because of pregnancy rather than the other way round.

If ministers do not agree on the proposed directive, lawyers for the Council of Ministers argue that the directive will 'fall' on 19 October. The proposed directive would then have to begin its tortuous journey once more through the European process, which could take another two or three years.