Towards a family leave system for the 2010s

23.11.2009 12.38
News item N5-51431
The possibility for the parents of small children to take parental leave is an important part of Finnish family and population policy. From the beginning of 2010 paternal leave will be extended from four to six weeks. Consideration is now being given to the decisions on parental leave of the next government. In September, the MSAH established a working group on parental leave to deal with preparatory work on this. "Prolonging parental leave has come up possibly by earmarking leave for fathers", says the Ombudsman for Children Maria Kaisa Aula, who chairs the working group.

 The main perspective of the working group is the welfare of children.

"Over the years there have been many and varied working groups on parental leave. The difference with the previous working groups is that the viewpoint of children is being stressed in addition to the viewpoints of working life and gender equality", says Aula of the working group's starting point. The second key idea is to strengthen joint parenting.

The working group will also consider the impact of parental leave on the birth rate, promoting breast feeding and enabling part-time working. Special issues include, for instance, the position of families with two or more children born at the same time, adoptive parenthood, same sex families and single parents. In matters of financing, consideration is being given to both the division of costs for sectors predominantly employing men or women and, on the other hand, the share of funding in terms of employers and employees.

Children's needs in the foreground

How does the working group intend to approach the issue of child welfare?

"During the spring we heard from specialists and researchers on how the family leave system looks from the viewpoint of the development of the child's early years. Are current parental leave entitlements long enough from the perspective of the development of a small child?" Aula wonders.

"It is good to realize that matters could to some extent have different emphases, when they are viewed from the perspectives of the child, father or mother. All viewpoints must be taken into account when developing the system."

"Wouldn't it be wise to act in such a way that as few under one-year-olds as possible go to day care? Children who don't know how to walk or talk need plenty of time from carers and are hard for day care centres to care for", says Aula.

Models from other Nordic countries

The working group on parental leave intends to acquire good ideas and practices above all from other Nordic countries. In these countries parental leave has been lengthened and on the other hand quota periods for family leave are earmarked for fathers. Also, in Germany and France new procedures have recently been set with which the working group is familiarizing itself.

In Sweden, earnings related parental leave is a year and a half: the first six months for the mother, the second six months for either parent and the last six months for the father. To get the last six months of earnings related leave, the parental leave taker specifically has to be the father. It is not compulsory to take all the parental leave entitlement during the child's first 18 months, as leave can also be divided into periods to be used later.

Is this also the likely course of family leave in Finland?

"I get the feeling that it would not be easy to divide up the 10 months of parental leave in use in Finland into smaller periods that could be earmarked. Increasing the fathers' share should be done by making parental leave longer", says Aula.

"But now we are going to clear up these issues. Certainly, both these orientations are evident in this work. Naturally, it is important what political decision-makers and parties think of these things. Then it is of course a matter of funding, of who is going to pay for all this", she says with a laugh.

Making a clearer system

Efforts are also being made to clarify the family leave system. Parents often find the different forms of leave and the benefits and rights related to them confusing. Making the family leave system flexible easily causes it to be to some degree complicated and unclear. The working group is also looking at this aspect of the system.

But the working group will not do legislative work. Its purpose is to yield guidelines and a consensus via its broad-based composition on the development of the overall family leave system.

Expert input next spring

The parental leave working group will proceed with its work in spring 2010 by hearing experts and becoming acquainted with the main research in the field. In the summer an assessment will be made and discussion started on development lines. In the autumn the working group will focus on its proposal for the reform of the parental leave system.

In addition to the MSAH, the working group comprises representatives of the government's two policy programmes, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Ministry of Finance, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, the main labour market organizations, state and municipal labour market institutions, the Federation of Finnish Enterprises and the Council for Gender Equality. NGOs involved include Save the Children Finland, the Family Federation and Finnish Youth Cooperation - Allianssi. The working group's term lasts until the end of 2010.

Terhi Aalto