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Statement on the family leave reform (TAS 109/2021, issued on 1 April 2021)

The Ombudsman for Equality has already discussed the importance of a reform of the family leave system, for example in his report to Parliament in 2018 (K 22/2018 vp.). The Ombudsman for Equality has considered earmarked family leave for fathers and increasing flexibility in the use of family leave to be of particular importance. It is essential that the family leave system should cater to different types of families and their varying needs and situations as well as possible.  For the most part, these issues are addressed in the draft Government proposal. This is positive. 

As many as half of all communications to the Ombudsman for Equality concerning working life involve discrimination based on pregnancy or family leave. In particular, many women whose fixed-term employment contracts have not been renewed contact the Ombudsman. Even though the employee has had several consecutive employment contracts, their employment contract is not renewed after the employer learns of their pregnancy or after they announce that they are taking family leave. This wrong should be addressed by the reform.

The more even distribution of family leave is important

The reform’s goal of having more fathers take family leave is highly commendable. The uneven use of family leave has a major impact on the realisation of gender equality, especially in working life. This uneven distribution of family leave and the career gaps it causes for women also contributes to differences in pay and pensions between the genders. In the Ombudsman for Equality’s opinion, a more even distribution of family leave and care responsibilities between parents, and men and women in general, would promote both gender equality and the overall well-being of families. The Ombudsman for Equality considers a non-transferrable family leave quota for fathers to be of particular importance to the more equal distribution of family leave. The Ombudsman for Equality commends the fact that family leave is divided into personal quotas for both parents in the reform.

The prevalence of discrimination based on pregnancy and parenthood on the Finnish labour market has been a key reason why the Ombudsman for Equality has advocated the more even distribution of family leave between the parents. According to the Ombudsman for Equality’s observations, discrimination based on pregnancy and family leave can be found in all areas and sectors of the labour market. 

According to the Ombudsman for Equality, it would also be necessary to investigate how the Health Insurance Act’s provisions on parenthood allowances could better take into account the fact that pregnancy and family leave limit the career and employment opportunities of women in particular. To safeguard the financial standing of mothers, it would be vital to let the mother choose, for example, her income for the 12 months preceding either her pregnancy or the start of family leave as the basis for calculating the allowance.  

The proposal includes a suggestion for partial family leave. The Ombudsman for Equality commends the idea that both parents would no longer be required to work part-time and that the minimum length requirement for part-time employment contracts would be eliminated. This would increase flexibility in taking family leave and is thus a highly commendable proposition. Part-time family leave would also be made more attractive if it could be split over two days, for example. 

The reform must be taken into account in collective agreements

Even though the effects of the proposed reform on gender equality, and especially the position of women in the labour market, would mainly be positive, it could also have a negative impact on pay equality between women and men. In particular, the Ombudsman for Equality sees problems in the reform with regard to the paid maternity leave agreed on in the currently valid collective agreements.  

As a rule, collective agreements set the length of paid maternity leave at either three months or 72 working days. Paid maternity leave is much longer than, for example, paid paternity leave in corresponding collective agreements. This practice has been possible, because the status of women on paid maternity leave and men on paternity leave is not comparable in a manner that would make the difference in pay for maternity leave and paternity leave to constitute discrimination under the Equality Act. The different criteria for being granted maternity or paternity leave, and the different purposes of the two types of leave, have also contributed to this interpretation. The purpose of maternity leave has been to safeguard the mother's recovery from pregnancy and labour and secure her income for this period. The purpose of paternity leave, on the other hand, has been to let the father care for his child, as well as deepening the relationship between father and child. But an employer could not choose to pay only women for parental leave without being guilty of discrimination, because mothers and fathers have an equal right to take parental leave.

The Ombudsman for Equality is particularly concerned about the reform's effect on the financial standing of mothers, because the legislative amendments concerning family leave will inevitably also reflect on collective agreements. Therefore, the financial standing of employed mothers could deteriorate if paid family leave was shortened from their current length. This would not be compensated by the increased daily allowance paid for the pregnancy allowance period and parental leave.  The reform's impact assessment has not considered the impact of changes in collective agreements on the status of mothers. 

The Government proposal does not address the relationship between the Health Insurance Act and collective agreements. This perspective has been ignored in the reform's rationale and impact assessment, which is highly unfortunate, because many matters related to family leave are regulated by collective agreements. The reform of the family leave system and, in particular, the Health Insurance Act’s regulations on family leave have significant effects on these agreements and thereby on the financial standing of, for example,  parents and families that take family leave.

Gender impact assessment required in the preparation of the family leave reform

In the opinion of the Ombudsman for Equality, the Government proposal and its impact assessment still need further drafting work and a more precise impact assessment. The reform's effects should be examined with an open mind, particularly from the perspective of different genders and family types, as well as the Equality Act’s provisions on discrimination. The proposal will alter the current family leave structure completely, so an impact assessment of the current state and proposed changes is especially crucial. The Ombudsman for Equality considers it important that the reform would not set back the development of equality in Finland or have a negative impact on the status of mothers and fathers. It would be important to assess the reform's overall impact on both mothers and fathers as part of the gender impact assessment.