Parental leave in Ireland - it's time for reform

Today marks not only the 101st International Women’s Day but also the day on which the Irish government misses the deadline to implement an EU Directive on parental leave. Deirdre Hosford puts forward the case for reform.

Today, on 8 March 2012, the Irish government will miss the deadline for implementation of an EU Directive on parental leave, which would have extended the period of unpaid leave available to men and women in Ireland from 14 weeks to 18 weeks. Ireland sought a derogation from this deadline, which gives us until March 2013 to implement the directive, owing to ‘the Government’s very heavy legislative agenda’.
Clearly, extending the parental leave rights of our citizens in line with EU policy is not high on the political agenda.

But there is a way that this failure could be turned into an opportunity. In response to a parliamentary question from Joanna Tuffy TD on the issue of paternity leave, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter recently discussed the implementation of the EU Directive and stated that:


"My Department is currently working in consultation with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the consolidation of all existing family leave legislation into one Act. This will also provide an opportunity to examine the scope for improvement in current provisions in the area of maternity, adoptive, parental and paternity leave."

Enter the feminist movement, with our list of reforms in one hand and a megaphone in the other.

Women in Ireland currently have a statutory minimum entitlement of 26 weeks’ maternity leave, together with 16 weeks additional unpaid maternity leave. Maternity benefit is payable by the Department of Social Protection if the employee is covered by PRSI and she may also receive maternity payments from her employer, depending on the terms of her employment contract. 

Paternity leave, on the other hand, is not recognised in employment law in Ireland and employers are not obliged to grant male employees special paternity leave, paid or unpaid, following the birth or adoption of their child. 

Both parents currently have an equal, separate entitlement to unpaid parental leave of up to 14 weeks in respect of a child up to eight years of age.
recent report by the ESRI - Households and Family Structures in Ireland - demonstrated the yawning and ever-widening gap between parental leave policy and the reality of family life in Ireland.

The report showed that, for a growing number of young couples, the woman has higher educational qualifications or occupational classification than her partner. Among couples of mean age 26-40, the woman has higher educational qualifications in 34% of cases, compared to 18% for men, while for 42% of younger couples the woman has a higher occupational classification, compared to 28% where the opposite is the case.

This means that for many young couples, the woman now also has the higher earning power of the two.

The report suggested that policymakers should consider options to re-orientate working arrangements for parents so that the impact of leave is concentrated less heavily on women. 

The report also noted that parental leave policy that relies heavily upon career leave for women will have greater financial consequences for households where the woman is the higher earner.

There has been stubborn opposition to reform from business lobby groups over the years on grounds of cost.  However, the ESRI has questioned the economic wisdom of their position, since the higher earning potential of women outlined in their report points towards negative impacts for household incomes if leave remains inflexible and weighted disproportionately towards women, while continuation of strictly gendered leave policies could result in economy-wide underemployment of human resources.

Meanwhile, a report by the Family Support Agency into Attitudes Towards Family Formation in Ireland demonstrated cultural and attitudinal shifts that are completely at odds with current parental and adoptive leave policies.

93% of respondents to the survey agreed that work-life balance is as important to men as it is to women, compared to 6% who disagreed. 86% of respondents also agreed that fathers should have the right to take paid paternity leave on the birth or adoption of a new baby, compared to 8% who disagreed.

The report also showed that many parents wanted the choice to share responsibility for caring and work more equally between partners. For example, 50% said that they think men and woman should both work part-time and “co-parent”, while 40% disagreed. In 2010, the share of part-time workers in total employment in Ireland stood at 34.7% for women and 11.8% for men.

A majority of respondents also said that they would like to see maternity leave changed into leave for one or other parent, with 53% agreeing and 35% in disagreement.

These findings demonstrate a clear desire for more equitable parental and adoptive leave policies, as well as the increasing importance of choice.

Significant disincentives inhibit take-up of unpaid parental leave under the current system.

The take-up rate of parental leave among fathers in Ireland is low. This can be directly attributed to the fact that the leave is currently unpaid in Ireland, as there is a high correlation between the levels of payment in different countries and take-up rates.

Unpaid leave also leads to inequitable outcomes between women. The Pregnancy at Work Report showed that take-up rates for combined paid and unpaid maternity leave among women is related to their ability to afford it, with lower take-up rates for low earners, part-time workers, women with lower levels of education and women with shorter job tenures.

Women’s take-up of unpaid parental leave is also dependent upon resources and financial security, with women whose partner is unemployed or earns less than they do less likely to request unpaid parental leave.

The upcoming constitutional convention will consider “Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life.” The convention will also consider “Provision for same-sex marriage.” At present, civil partners do not have adoption rights, so they could not avail of more flexible adoptive leave policies if they were introduced. Constitutional amendments in respect of these issues would underscore the discrepancy between parental and adoptive leave policy and our social values and lived experiences.

Calls for more equitable leave policies for parents come in the context of persistent gender inequalities in Ireland, which could be somewhat ameliorated by a more balanced approach to the gender distribution of caring and work.

In 2010, 22% of business leaders in Ireland were women, compared to an EU average of 33%. The employment rate for women without children in 2010 was 76% in Ireland and 76.7% across the EU 27; this fell to 57.1% for women in Ireland with children, compared to an average of 64.7% of women with children across the EU.

And as we are only too aware, 15.1% of the current Dáil are women, compared to an EU average of 24.9%; a situation that will hopefully improve over time with the introduction of gender quotas for General Election candidate selection.

So what should we be calling for between now and March 2013?

We could demand the introduction of statutory paid paternity leave upon the birth or adoption of a child.

We could call for reform of paid maternity leave to make it transferable between partners, at a ratio to be determined by the couple. This would be relatively cost-neutral.

We could demand that adoption rights be extended to civil partners to ensure that civil partners can also avail of more flexible leave arrangements.

We could put the introduction of payment in respect of parental leave on the agenda. This would increase take-up of parental leave among men and lead to more equitable outcomes for women in low income households.

We could set a course for increasing the period of paid paternity leave over time.

But, above all, we should rescue the issue of gender equality, choice and work-life balance for families from the bottom of the political agenda.

In January 2011 the Irish media noted state papers of historical interest dating from 1976, which revealed the attitude held by a senior official in the department of Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave towards the prospect of extending paid maternity leave. The official described the move as “a luxury our society cannot afford” and went on to state: “...I suspect that the over-riding body of opinion — even female opinion — would feel that there are higher priorities for [the Minister for Labour] at the present time.”

Let’s make sure that, when it comes to paid paternity leave, history does not repeat itself.

And let's also make sure that, by the time our belated implementation date rolls around in March 2013, we are implementing far more than the bare minimum EU requirements. 

Deirdre Hosford is the Education and Policy Officer with Labour Youth. 

A Brief Political History of Parental Leave Reform

In April 2002, the Working Group on the Review of the Parental Leave Act 1998 published its findings...

The Group noted research which showed that 84% of parental leave taken to date was availed of by women and that, accordingly, the financial disadvantages involved in taking parental leave have a greater effect on women than on men.

The Group considered the principle of paid parental leave but could not reach consensus.

The proposal that parental leave should attract payment was supported by The Irish Congress of Trade Unions; The National Women’s Council of Ireland; The Equality Authority; The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; and The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

The proposal was opposed by The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation; The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society; and the Department of Finance...

The Group also considered the introduction of a statutory entitlement to 3 days paid paternity leave per child payable by employers, but could not reach consensus.

The principle was supported by The Irish Congress of Trade Unions; The National Women’s Council of Ireland; The Equality Authority; The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; The Department of Finance; The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; and The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

The proposal was rejected by The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation and The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society...

The Agreed Programme for Government 2007-2012 between Fianna Fáil, The Green Party and the Progressive Democrats contained commitments to “Examine the possibility of introducing paternity benefit” and “Examine the possibility of shared parental leave,” but neither proposal was advanced during the period of that government.

In Labour’s Manifesto for Children, the Labour Party pledged to “Introduce a paternity leave model, where parents can share paid leave when a new baby is born, as resources allow.” The 2011 Fine Gael election manifesto also committed that “We will review maternity leave to permit parents to share leave entitlements, recognising the changing needs of modern families.”

In January 2012, Minister Alan Shatter stated in response to a parliamentary question that “Ireland is fully compliant with the requirements of the current EU Directive on Maternity Leave and I have no proposals to transfer any portion of existing maternity leave for mothers.”

Originally published on the Irish Feminist Network's blog, republished with permission.

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