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FactFind: How generous is maternity leave in Ireland?

Women in Ireland get some of the longest maternity leave periods in Europe – but also some of the lowest-paid.

MOTHER’S DAY PROMPTED some discussion this week about the issue of maternity leave in Ireland, and how it compares to the rest of Europe.

Last Friday, the National Women’s Council of Ireland highlighted a report by the UK Trades Union Congress, and claimed Ireland is “bottom of the European league when it comes to paid maternity leave”.

The Irish Times reported “Republic one of worst states in Europe for maternity leave”, the Times Online said “Ireland among worst for paid maternity leave” and the Irish Examiner reported “Ireland bottom of the league for well-paid maternity leave”.

And yet, a 2011 article in the Irish Independent was headlined “Ireland near top of maternity leave table”.

Is someone getting something badly wrong here? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

In this FactFind, we’re going to take a look at what last week’s report said, and explore some of the other evidence about the benefits available to working women around the time of childbirth, and see how that compares to other major developed and European nations.

The Facts

Ireland

As laid out by the Citizens’ Information Board, the basic facts around maternity leave in Ireland are the following:

  • All female employees are legally entitled to 42 weeks’ leave (just over 10 months) during and after pregnancy
  • You must take maternity leave during the two weeks before your expected due date, and the four weeks after it
  • During the first 26 weeks, you will continue to be paid, but the final 16 weeks do not have to be paid
  • Rates of pay vary by employer and are specified in employment contracts, but the legal minimum rate of pay during maternity leave is €235 per week, in the form of the Maternity Benefit

Report published by the TUC

The research discussed last week was not actually done by the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), and was not “new” research.

It was simply highlighted by the TUC in a press release last Friday, but was conducted by the Leave Network, a group of academics and experts with a focus on employment leave.

It was also first published in April 2016.

It examines legal national maternity leave policies in 28 European and 12 non-European countries.

Here’s what it found:

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

When it comes to the duration of statutory maternity leave, Ireland ranks second among 28 European countries, with 9.3 months.

The UK, which allows for a full year, tops the table, while Austria, Germany, Lithuania and Luxembourg provide only 1.9 months of statutory leave.

Four European countries – Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden – have parental leave policies, without distinction relating to gender.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Again, Ireland ranks near the very top of the European “league”, when it comes to the duration of paid maternity leave, with six months.

The United Kingdom offers the longest period of paid leave, with nine months, while again, Austria, Germany, Lithuania and Luxembourg provide only 1.9 months of paid maternity leave.

There are a couple of apparent discrepancies here that we should explain, albeit they are not particularly large.

Ireland’s statutory maternity leave is 42 weeks, which translates into 10.5 months. And paid leave is 26 weeks, which is 6.5 months.

The Leave Network confirmed to us that they count the period of post-natal maternity leave (in Ireland this is 40 weeks), and that they count one month as 4.3 weeks (because 52 weeks in a year, divided by 12 months, is 4.33 weeks per month).

For this reason, the report presents the overall period of statutory maternity leave as 9.3 months (as opposed to 10.5) and the period of paid leave as 6 months (as opposed to 6.5).

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

When it comes to the level of pay mandated by law, Ireland ranks at the very bottom of the European league, along with Slovakia.

Irish women are not legally entitled to any period of what the Leave Network describes as “well-paid” maternity leave – that is, 66% of normal earnings, or more.

The United Kingdom, despite having the longest statutory period of paid maternity leave, provides just 1.4 months of “well-paid” maternity leave.

By contrast, Croatia tops the European table with six months of statutory maternity leave at a rate above 66% of normal earnings.

It’s important to note that some women in Ireland do get this level of payment during maternity leave, because their employers provide it. But they are not legally entitled to it.

In fact, no employer in Ireland is legally obliged to pay women during maternity leave, at all. But where they don’t, the state steps in with the €235-a-week maternity benefit.

It’s also worth noting here that at the time this research was first published, in April 2016, the maternity benefit was €230 a week.

So the Leave Network research, which was highlighted but not conducted by the TUC, and was published a year ago, not last week, found female workers in Ireland get among the longest periods of maternity leave, and paid maternity leave, in Europe.

However, it also found that the legally-mandated minimum amount they get paid during that relatively long period of leave, falls below 66% of normal earnings, and places Ireland at the bottom of the European league in this respect.

Other evidence

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) tracks maternity and paternal leave throughout its 35 member nations.

Its most recent update on this issue was in 2015. Since then, the maternity benefit rate in Ireland has increased from €230 to €235 a week.

We should also be cautious about possible changes in other countries since last year, but it’s unlikely these would have a radical effect on the overall trends and rankings.

With that in mind, let’s see what the OECD’s figures show for European countries in 2015 (You can download a spreadsheet with all the figures, here):

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Among other measures, the OECD tracks the level of maternity leave payments among member countries, presenting it as a percentage of that country’s national average earnings in 2014, the preceding year.

The figures here are based around the example of a woman who has exactly the average earnings in her country.

By way of explanation, if I earn the national average, and get 4 weeks of paid leave, all of them at full pay, then the rate presented in the OECD figures is 100%.

If I get 4 weeks of paid leave, with two weeks at 100% and two weeks at 50%, then the rate presented in the OECD figures is the weighted average of 75%.

If I get a flat rate of €500 a week during maternity leave, and the average national earnings translate to €1,000 a week, then the rate presented in the OECD figures is 50%.

In the case of a woman who earns above the national average, things obviously get more complicated when calculating rates of maternity leave pay. You can examine that more detailed data by checking Chart PF2.4.A in this downloadable spreadsheet.

We’re going to present the figures based on a woman with average earnings.

On this measure, Ireland ranks second-last among European countries in 2015, with the maternity benefit (then €230 a week) constituting just 35% of average earnings.

Only the UK (31%) ranks lower among European nations.

By contrast, 11 European countries provide women 100% of their earnings during periods of paid maternity leave.

So what we can see so far, in both the OECD and Leave Network research, is that Ireland provides exceptionally long periods of maternity leave and paid maternity leave, but the rates of pay during maternity leave are among the very lowest in Europe.

However, given the unusually long period of paid maternity leave in Ireland, is it possible that this works out as more generous, overall, than in other countries?

After all, five months of paid leave at 25% of normal earnings, for example, still works out as five weeks’ worth of full pay in total, while one month at 100% of earnings works out as just four weeks’ worth of full pay in total.

Fortunately, the OECD has a measure which calculates exactly that.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The “full-rate equivalent” shows us how the average rate of pay during paid maternity leave, multiplied across the weeks of paid leave provided for in law, translates into what we’re calling “full-pay-equivalent” weeks.

By this measure, Ireland’s regime ranks a little higher, helped by the fact that the €230-a-week maternity benefit (now €235) is multiplied across 26 weeks.

However, those 9.1 full-pay-equivalent weeks place us fifth-last out of 31 European countries, between Denmark and Iceland, and in the bottom 20%.

By contrast, women in Bulgaria were legally entitled to the equivalent of 52.7 weeks of full pay during maternity leave, in 2015.

Conclusion

Source: Shutterstock/Dirima

Irish law entitles women to an exceptionally long period of maternity leave (42 weeks), and one of the longest periods of paid maternity leave in Europe (26 weeks).

However, for a female worker on average earnings, the legally-mandated rate of pay works out as the second-lowest in Europe.

Furthermore, according to the Leave Network research Ireland is one of only two European countries not to provide some statutory maternity leave at a rate of at least 66% of normal pay.

And even when this rate of pay is multiplied across those 26 weeks, the effective maternity leave pay for an average female worker in Ireland is among the very lowest in Europe, according to the OECD.

What’s more, the fact that maternity benefit is paid at a flat rate in Ireland (as opposed to being set as a percentage of normal earnings) means that women who earn above average are legally entitled to a progressively even lower percentage of their usual earnings, during maternity leave.

However, it’s important to emphasise that we’re talking here about what female workers are legally entitled to, not necessarily what they actually get paid, during maternity leave.

Depending on who their employer is, and what the terms of their contract are, some women will be paid well in excess of the legal minimum of €235 a week, during maternity leave.

And finally – obviously this article doesn’t deal with paternity leave and parental leave. The dynamics surrounding that issue are somewhat different from those surrounding maternity leave, and it wasn’t the subject of newspaper articles and press releases earlier this week.

However, it’s certainly something that could form the basis of another FactFind, in future. For now, you’ll find some interesting information on how Ireland’s paternity leave policy compares to the rest of Europe here and here.

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