Britain already provides for a total of 40 weeks' possible maternity leave. However, six weeks of this is statutory leave at 90 per cent of earnings, paid by the employer; a further 12 weeks is paid at pounds 46.30 a week by the state; any remaining time is unpaid. There is a catch: to qualify for the benefit at present, a woman must be in full-time work with the same employer for two years or, in the case of part-time workers, five years.
The new legislation will ensure a minimum of 14 weeks' maternity leave, paid at at least the same rate as sick pay, for all pregnant women in work. The sum will vary between pounds 45.30 and pounds 52.20 a week depending on income. It will be impossible to fire a woman merely because she is pregnant.
'For the first time, women in Britain will not be denied maternity leave simply because they have not worked long enough for their employer,' said Christine Crawley, Labour MEP for Birmingham East, one of the foremost supporters of the legislation.
Independent organisations such as the Commission for Equality claim that about 150,000 women a year should benefit from yesterday's decision. But the victory rings a little hollow if set in the broader European context.
Denmark currently offers 26 weeks on 90 per cent of salary. Britain offers 40 weeks but only six of them are at 90 per cent of salary. Portugal, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece offer between 12 and 16 weeks at full salary; Belgium, Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy offer between 16 and 20 weeks at between 70 and 80 per cent of salary.
The legislation cannot be used as an excuse by member countries to offer women less maternity leave than they are currently paid.
The decision formally agreed yesterday falls far short of the original proposal for 14 weeks' statutory leave on full pay.
'Had the British government not watered (this) down, the whole of the Community would be celebrating today. As it is, British women are just about the only ones who will benefit from the directive and, even with it, they remain at the bottom of the European heap when it comes to maternity rights,' Ms Crawley said.
The British objections stemmed in part from a belief that the legal basis of the proposed legislation, brought in under health and safety provisions, was wrong. For this reason the UK abstained in the final vote yesterday.
The legislation is to be reviewed in five years' time, and a clause has been added stipulating, at Italy's insistence, that the decision 'is in no sense to be interpreted as suggesting any analogy between pregnancy and illness'. Italy also abstained in the final vote.
The Commission for Equality is disappointed, but relieved that after two years and some bitter fights, they have finally got legislation on the statute book, although what began life as an ambitious initiative finished as a set of minimum standards.
What the directive sets out
THE RIGHT for pregnant workers not to work at night if their doctor certifies that night work would be a risk to their health; full protection against having to work with substances and processes which would endanger their health and safety; an obligation on all employers to assess the risks to pregnant workers, to inform their employees of this risk assessment and to take necessary measures to protect them against these risks; an obligation on employers to adjust the working conditions or hours of work of pregnant workers to protect their health and safety; the right of all pregnant employees to paid time off in order to attend ante-natal examinations during working hours. The right to a minimum of 14 weeks' maternity leave; maintenance of all contractual rights during maternity leave and any absences from work for reasons of health and safety during pregnancy; protection against dismissal for reasons connected with pregnancy. A minimum level of statutory financial support during maternity leave.Reuse content