Pressure over maternity pay

ABIGAIL ADAMS, a solicitor in the employment department at Ashton Graham Solicitors, warns of a possible extension of EU maternity rights

IN OCTOBER 2008, the European Commission published a proposal to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive (92/85/EEC) which sets down minimum levels of maternity rights, including leave and pay, which member states must provide.

Currently, women in the UK who qualify for statutory maternity pay get the first six weeks at 90% of average gross weekly earnings with no upper limit.

For the remaining 33 weeks it is paid at the lower of either the statutory maternity pay of �124.88 or 90% of average gross weekly earnings.

Last month, however, saw the European Parliament vote in favour of significantly extending the current provisions in the UK.

The augmented provisions adopt amendments to ban the dismissal of pregnant workers from the beginning of a pregnancy to at least six months following the end of maternity leave, and entitle women to return to their jobs or “equivalent posts”.

However, it is the two to one majority vote in favour of extending maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks on full pay that has provoked the most heated reaction.

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The UK was among those member states arguing against the imposition of fully-paid maternity leave in the aftermath of the recent recession, particularly in light of the spending review which outlined a wide ranging package of government spending cuts, and it is inevitable that political battles lie ahead before the amendments come into UK legislation.

The consequences are potentially far-reaching and would represent a crippling cost to businesses. Initial impact assessments value the additional cost to the UK, the most adversely affected member state, at �2.5bn a year. Although firms are currently reimbursed by the state for the majority of statutory maternity pay, there is undoubtedly concern that this scale of increase will ultimately be passed on to small, already overburdened, businesses.

Additionally, firms are likely to be deterred from employing women of childbearing age, leading to an increase in the chances of young women being indirectly discriminated against in an already tough marketplace.

It is important to note that the proposal is still a long way from becoming law. National governments will vote on the EU Pregnant Workers package which is likely to come under considerable attack, particularly from the UK. Extensive lobbying from employers’ groups is also anticipated. Employers, however, are advised to watch this space with caution, and particularly those small businesses, which often find such issues acting as their biggest barriers.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. You should not act or rely upon this information.