Maternity leave provisions could be in for an upheaval following the publication of new proposals by the European Commission to vary some of the various health and safety aspects of the employment of pregnant women, and women who have recently had babies. The rules and benefits relating to pregnancy and maternity vary across the member states and some of the proposals could clash with the UK’s emphasis on longer leave on lower pay.  

In the UK women receive 90% of their salaries for six weeks and then a prescribed amount of maternity pay for 33 weeks. The Commission recommends that employers pay women 100% of their salaries for 18 weeks. Member states will have the option of setting a ceiling on the amount of maternity pay during this 18 week period to the level of sick pay but there is uncertainty as to how “sick pay” will be interpreted. If it is interpreted in relation to statutory sick pay this will not affect women in the UK, because both basic and higher rates of statutory maternity pay are already higher than statutory sick pay. However, if the Commission interprets this as contractual sick pay then employers will have to ensure they pay women at least as much as they would have earned had they been on sick leave for 18 weeks.  

Women will also be given greater flexibility to decide when to take compulsory maternity leave. One proposal is that compulsory maternity leave will be increased from two weeks to six weeks, and women will no longer have to take part of their noncompulsory maternity leave before childbirth, which is currently the case in some member states.  

Finally, the proposals aim to provide increased protection for women who are on, or returning from, maternity leave. If a woman is dismissed in the first six months after childbirth she will, under the proposals, have a specific right to request written reasons for her dismissal.

The Directive is currently timetabled to be agreed by 2009, so any changes to the law in the UK would be likely to be in the next three years.