‘Room for improvement’ in OECD, EU family-friendly policies, says Unicef

Sweden, Norway and Iceland offer the most family-friendly policies of all 41 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and European Union countries, according to a report from Unicef’s Innocenti Research Centre.

The report ranked the countries on the duration of their paid maternity, paternity and parental leave. It also measured the share of children under three, as well as those between three and the compulsory school age in childcare centres.

“Family-friendly policies matter because they help children to get a better start in life and help parents to find the right balance between their commitments at work and at home,” the report said. “Yet even some of the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families.”

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The Nordic countries scored in the top third on paid leave for fathers and the share of children under the age of three who were in childcare programs. Of the three, Norway offered the longest paid leave to mothers, at the equivalent of 45 weeks of fully paid leave.

Cyprus, Greece and Switzerland received the lowest overall rankings, with some of the least generous paid leave for mothers, little or no paid leave for fathers, as well as low percentages of children under the age of three enrolled in childcare.

Canada was one of 10 countries that didn’t receive an overall ranking due to insufficient data on the percentage of young children in childcare programs. However, it ranked in the top 20 for paid leave for mothers, with the equivalent of 27 weeks of fully paid leave. The report also noted that while at the time of the report Canada had no paid leave for fathers, in March 2019 it introduced a use-it-or-lose-it parental leave for fathers or alternative parents of five or eight weeks.

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The U.S., which also didn’t rank, is the only OECD country that doesn’t offer any paid leave for mothers.

In comparison, the most generous offering was in Estonia, which provides new mothers with the equivalent of 85 weeks of fully paid maternity and parental leave, followed by Hungary, at the equivalent of 72 weeks. Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland offer less than 10 weeks.

The report noted maternity leave tends to be short, averaging 18 weeks across OECD countries and 22 weeks across EU countries. The parental leave that follows tends to be longer, but not as generously paid. In only 14 of the 41 countries, maternity leave is fully paid for an employee based on their average earnings, but the way this is calculated differs between countries. Some pay 100 per cent of the mother’s previous earnings up to a cap, some have no cap and some have a flat rate of pay.

In comparison to the 40 countries that offer paid maternity leave, just 26 offer paid paternity leave — and while it’s shorter, usually around one to two weeks, it’s often paid at a higher rate. Among the countries that have paternity leave, 16 guarantee a 100 per cent salary replacement based on average earnings.

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Japan and South Korea had the most generous paternity leave policies, at the equivalent of 30.4 weeks and 17.2 weeks of fully paid leave, respectively. However, the report noted both countries have struggled with uptake. Only 5.14 per cent of eligible Japanese fathers took paid leave in 2017, up from 1.56 per cent in 2007. South Korea had more luck getting new fathers to take leave after the government boosted payments and launched a national work-life balance campaign: in 2018, men accounted for 17 per cent of all parents who took leave, in comparison to just two per cent of eligible men taking paternity leave in 2011.

Looking at childcare, the report found Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands had the highest rate of children under the age of three enrolled in childcare, though in all countries that metric was lower than the rate of children between the ages of three and the compulsory school age who were enrolled in childcare.

The report noted not all pre-school children need to attend childcare or early childhood education programs, but that parents should be able to access them. “However, in some countries the end of paid childcare leave does not coincide with the start of entitlements to affordable childcare in centres, leaving many families with young children struggling to fill this gap,” the report said.

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For parents with children under the age of three, the key barrier to accessing childcare was affordability. In the U.K., where 29 per cent of children under three are enrolled in childcare, 22 per cent of parents said they couldn’t afford to use these services. In comparison, in Denmark and Sweden, where 70 per cent and 51 per cent of children under age three are in childcare, respectively, less than one per cent of parents felt affordability was an issue.

The report also looked at support for breastfeeding, noting almost all of the ranked countries guaranteed breastfeeding breaks for women at work until their child is at least six months old. Only Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Malta and the U.K. don’t offer the option as a guarantee.

The report recommended that countries make it easier for mothers to breastfeed after they return to work by providing breastfeeding breaks, a comfortable place to pump and store their milk and offer quality childcare near their work.

While some countries clearly have stronger family-friendly policies, the report noted, none had uniform rankings across all four criteria. “This suggests that there is room for improvement, even among the more family-friendly countries.”

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