Striking a balance

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Professor JosAnn Cutajar, Department for Gender and Sexualities, Faculty for Social Wellbeing shares her views on how Malta can obtain a better work life balance.

In this article I will discuss ideas of how Malta can transpose the EU Work-life balance directive (2019) which gives EU Member States three years to adopt the laws, regulations and administrative provisions to strengthen policies to enable equal sharing of parental and caring responsibilities.  In this article I will be focusing on parental leave and summarizing some of the suggestions that were made in a seminar organised by the Consultative Council for Women’s Rights (MJEG) on the topic.  Parental leave applies to those people who adopt, foster and/or have legal custody of children

The design of family policy emerges from how a society conceptualises the family.  If one looks at maternity, paternity and parental leave in Malta, these are built on the assumption that there is somebody who will stay at home with dependents and is unpaid for the work done.  In the past it was mothers, now grandparents have been added to the fray in an economy which depends on full employment of active age citizens.  Post-2008 welfare states assume that women and men need to work.  Since both parents work, caring needs to be shared. Research shows that men are more likely to take parental leave when this is paid.

The only paid parental leave in Malta is maternity leave.  In other EU member states (apart from a few), paternity, parental and/or home care leave is paid.  The design of work-family policy provisions and parental leave should therefore be framed in a way to enable men to care for dependents. 

Maltese work-family policies are not that conducive to parenting since new parents, the majority of whom are shouldering huge financial burdens if they have a home loan, cannot afford to withdraw from the labour market to have children.  It is not surprising than that in 2018, the lowest fertility rate was recorded in Malta according to Eurostat.

The objective of the EU directive is for states to use legislation around parental leave to challenge gender roles and ensure that children benefit from the care of more than one parent.  Any changes need to take into consideration that there are different family forms, and that single parents, those with children born with a disability, in the case of multiple births and same sex parents need to have different parental leave arrangements.  For example, in the case of multiple births, parents are given additional leave per child in some member states.

Lithuania is the EU member state to emulate where parental leave is concerned.  In this country new mothers can partake of 18 weeks of fully paid leave (in Malta this is divided at 14 fully paid and the rest at sick leave level), while new fathers get four weeks on full pay.  Parents get an additional 156 weeks to share. 

From feedback which emerged during a seminar conducted in late September 2020 it was clear that the participants felt that the state should enable parents in Malta to avail themselves of a 2-year parental leave.  While each parent is allocated 2 months (in the case of single parents 4 months) of non-transferable leave paid at 70% salary per child, on a use it or lose it basis, the rest of the parental leave can be set at sick leave level.  The argument behind this is that sending babies to a nursery at a young age does not allow their immunity system to strengthen.

Parental leave cannot be taken by both parents at the same time, underlines the directive. Both parents can avail themselves of this leave on a part-time basis if one parent works in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, for example.  Each parent can postpone a set number of weeks for use later (example to use leave when children are sick, parent’s day, etc.).  During the discussion participants also underlined that parental leave should not stop when children reach eight years of ages in the case of children born with or acquire a chronical illness or a disability. 

Literature underlines that this leave needs to be paid by the state – if it is paid by the employer, it will be a disincentive to employ native and EU nationals.  In other EU countries, parental leave is financed through public health insurance contributions (in 18 out of 27 EU states), general social security scheme (as in 4-member states and Iceland), or through taxation (for example Malta can introduce a progressive tax for those earning more than 60,001 euros per year).

Introducing a more just parental leave helps attract and retain workers.  It will also ensure that less workers are absent from work and they are more motivated, which improves companies’ productivity.  More people working means more income tax payments and social security contributions paid. It means more money to spend, more VAT paid.  It will also lead to more sustainable public finances through reduced unemployment or inactivity.

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