Parents’ contribution to the European public consultation on ‘challenges of work-life balance’

The European Commission launched a public consultation on a roadmap on ‘possible action to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working parents and caregivers’. The roadmap openly declares that “the main reason behind the initiative is to address the low participation of women in the labour market by modernising and adapting the current EU legal and policy framework to today's labour market”. On behalf of European parents, EPA as a registered lobby organisation contributed to the public consultation emphasising that issues of reconciliation parents are facing are much broader than measures pushing women to participate at the labour market. First of all, it is important for us to demand the use of another phrase ‘work-life balance’ as it suggests that work is not part of life while it is.

One of the Europe 2020 targets is to have 75% of all women in Europe on the job market and at present this is 63.5% with a well-known gender gap between salaries of men and women. The roadmap also claims that women are likely to take jobs they are overqualified for, after having children, in order to fulfil their care obligations better. The roadmap is proposing to support reconciliation of work and family life through ‘a new initiative aiming at increasing the participation of women in the labour market through better work-life reconciliation, appropriate protection and strengthened gender equality will therefore contribute to the priority of the Commission on growth and jobs in particular to achieve the employment headline target of Europe 2020’.  From a parent’s point of view, the importance of good parenting for the future of Europe is much higher than present jobs and growth, thus we still believe that investing in children and families with middle to long term targets should have a priority over short term growth targets.

The new roadmap totally abandons the target of the ‘Maternity leave directive’ recently withdrawn by the EC that would have offered parents an agreeable amount of leave in all EU countries to make it possible for working mothers to stay at home for the breastfeeding, would have obliged countries also to offer leave for fathers and to offer equal minimum possibilities for all EU citizens. In the new roadmap there is only emphasis on different measures to push fathers also to take family-related leave and share it with mothers. At the same time, it is an important demand from the EC that member states should offer protection and paid leave to parents in case their children are ill.

It has been part of EU policy for some time to put an equation mark between offering institutionalised early childhood care with the obligation of member states to support parents in their care and education responsibilities (set forth by the UNCRC). According to the Barcelona Targets (2010) childcare should be provided by governments for 90% of children between three years old and the mandatory school age, and for 33% of children under three. These are targets not to be questioned, but there must also be measures not only to support the other 66% of parents with children of 3 or younger, the 10% of those between the age of 3 and compulsory schooling age, but also to support the care and education obligations of parents with children of compulsory schooling age regardless their choice of education, be it public, private or home-schooling. The roadmap in its present form lacks measures on family support for a real choice of care arrangements, while from a parental point of view the emphasis on setting up formal care arrangements should be balanced in order to help those opting out for the best interest of their children.

The fact that the participation of women is lower than desired by the EC on the labour market is considered to be a factor of social exclusion. However, it is not taken into account that parents opting out are doing jobs that otherwise would cost society money and that re-joining the labour market for those who have been full-time carers and educators of their children is difficult. In this respect the recognition of parents as the primary educators of their children as a valuable contribution to society is totally missing from the proposal, but also the recognition and validation of parenting skills that would support parents, especially mothers to re-join the labour market.

The policy areas that are planned to be addressed when carrying out this roadmap are the following:
  • ·         Childcare
  • ·         Long-term care services
  • ·         Family-related leave arrangements for both women and men
  • ·         Flexible working arrangements for both women and men
  • ·         Tax-benefit systems that make work pay for both partners

There are several areas missing from the list, including active citizenship, education (from a holistic lifelong learning perspective, from cradle to grave). It is important to emphasise them as they are regulated by different administrative measures and setups, different ministries and directorate generals in the EU and also in most EU member states. It is a false approach not to take it into considerations that parents’ obligations are until the age of 18 of their children, although the time spent on different activities normally vary according to the age of the child. This does not only include time spent with children, but also time devoted to participation in the life and decision making processes of institutions, especially schools. It has been a demand of parents’ associations all over Europe for over 20 years that time devoted to parental involvement in schools should also be officially acknowledged. In an aging society it is important to acknowledge time spent on activities related to the family, be it childcare, education, school leadership or caring for the elderly. Member states are relieved of certain obligations by families and family members offering these ‘services’ to their own families and for peers in some cases. There should be measures to acknowledge and remunerate these services and also include their value when measuring contribution to a country’s growth.

Another difficult issue is the difference between different EU countries. In our view at least EU-level minimum regulations, instead of recommendations, should be introduced to ensure equal rights to EU citizens to prevent migration for better reconciliation, and also to ensure those choosing to become mobile workers will be guaranteed the same rights and opportunities at home and other EU countries for their families, especially regarding their children.

At the moment the EU has only financial initiatives, such as the European Social Fund and Cohesion Funds to support recommendations becoming a reality on member-state-level. However, experience shows that these existing incentives are only helpful in countries that have committed themselves to implementing policies supporting EU recommendations, such as reconciliation measures, but even in these countries the control of relevant citizens' groups, i.e. parents and children is not ensured. In countries that have not committed themselves to these measures, there is no means for stakeholders to ensure financing for reconciliation-related projects, initiatives. This results in very different provisions and possibilities in EU countries. Ensuring stakeholder involvement on decision-making level(s) would ensure that those affected can articulate their real needs and negotiate about necessary policy measures.

In general, we can state that for parents in Europe the scope of this consultation has been narrow and biased, reconciliation of work and family life is not for higher level of women's employment, but the best interest of our children. The focus on employability is taking the emphasis away from the basic human right of free choice and also the rights of the child (and also parents). While the present consultation mentions care responsibilities, what is totally missing is acknowledgement and reimbursement of these activities, carried out by people away from the job market, but contributing to society and the economy by volunteering within their own families or in wider community context.

EPA published a policy paper, based on consulting its members in 31 countries, collecting reconciliation issues for parents as a stakeholder group in these countries, with emphasis on the need for training, parenting support, suitable employment schemes, common education framework, free choice and above all the best interest of the child. Reconciliation measures should accompany those aiming at investing in children. The EPA policy paper can be found here: http://euparents.eu/Balancing_Work_and_Family_Life, but the EPA Manifesto for a European Future of our Children in the 21st century also contains measures desired by parents. http://euparents.eu/Manifesto_2015  


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