A committee of the European Parliament has produced draft legislation which, if it is approved, would extend maternity leave.
Under the proposals, women across Europe would be entitled to 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay, up from the 14 weeks, with six weeks on full pay, which can be claimed at the moment.
In the UK, the rules allow pregnant women to take a year off, of which six weeks are paid at 90 per cent of the mother’s average pay, followed by 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay of £123.06 a week. The remainder is unpaid.
It is expected that the new proposals will be put before the European Parliament in March.
The UK government has voiced worries over any changes.
Lord Young, the employment relations minister, said: “The commission’s proposals are only at an early stage, but we do have concerns and are lobbying hard to get the right deal for the UK.
“We already have a generous system which is better than many European Union countries and works well, balancing the needs of businesses and workers. A substantial increase in maternity leave paid at full or near-full pay risks undermining this delicate balance at a time when economies across the EU can least afford it.”
Business groups echoed the government’s anxiety.
Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), commented: “The Pregnant Workers Directive should be about setting minimum EU standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers – not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems.”
Dr Marshall argued that the draft legislation would introduce unnecessary complexity and uncertainty as the UK and other EU countries already have well-developed national maternity pay systems.
He added: “Companies need to be given the space to deliver growth and jobs – without being hamstrung by new and costly maternity rules. As the Directive moves forward, we urge the European Parliament as a whole and the Council to overturn these costly amendments.”
The Institute of Directors (IoD) estimated that the changes could mean up to an extra £2 billion a year in employment costs in the UK.
There are, however, doubts as to whether the draft would be passed by the full Parliament.
Proposals that women be given 20 weeks of maternity leave with six weeks on full pay were vetoed by the European Parliament eighteen months ago over fears that the rules could encourage employers to discriminate against female job applicants.
The current parlous economic climate may also weigh heavily against the adoption of more generous maternity leave terms.