CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN MINISTERS
RESPONSIBLE FOR FAMILY AFFAIRS
Portorož, 20 - 22 June 2001
AND FAMILY LIFE"
22 June 2001 MMF-XXVII (2001) 7
1. At the invitation of the Slovenian Minister of Labour, Family and Social Affairs, the Ministers responsible for Family Affairs, or their representatives, of the member states of the Council of Europe1, and representatives of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, Parliamentary Assembly and Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, as well as the Holy See, met in Portorož, Slovenia, on 20 - 22 June 2001 for the XXVIIth Session of the Conference of European Ministers responsible for Family Affairs, on the theme “Reconciling working and family life”.
2. The Conference was opened by Mr Hans-Christian Krüger, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Mr Vlado Dimovski, the Slovenian Minister of Labour, Family and Social Affairs, President of the Conference, introduced the debate. Mr Borut Pahor, President of the Parliament of the Republic of Slovenia delivered a speech of welcome.
3. The Conference theme was divided into three sub-themes:
"Reconciling working and family life: Policy objectives and challenges", introduced by Mr Dermot Ahern, the Irish Minister responsible for Social, Community and Family Affairs. Ms Karita Bekkemellem Orheim, the Norwegian Minister of Children and Family Affairs, replied.
"The role of the state and public authorities: measures and initiatives", introduced by Mr Reinhart Waneck, Austrian State Secretary for Health, Federal Ministry of Social Security and Generations. Ms Judit Szemkeö, Hungarian Political State Secretary responsible for Social and Family Affairs, replied.
"The fair sharing of responsibilities between mothers and fathers", introduced by Ms Marie-Josée Jacobs, Luxembourg Minister of Family, Social Solidarity and Youth. Ms Joana de Barros Baptista, President of the National Commission for Family Affairs in Portugal, replied.
4. The main aim of the XXVIIth session of the Conference of European Ministers responsible for Family Affairs was to discuss experience, views and good practices regarding action to reconcile working and family life, which is a matter of major concern both to ministers responsible for family affairs and to ministers responsible for employment.
5. For several years now, this issue has been on the political agenda, both at national and international level, and the Conference set out to assess the effectiveness of the existing international instruments, identify the new measures required, and highlight the various approaches to reconciling working and family life adopted by the countries represented. It was recognised that working life is becoming more and more demanding, creating stress and leaving less time for family, voluntary and community life. It was therefore hoped that the meeting would give governments and the social partners a fresh impetus towards strengthening their policies in this area. Meeting this challenge is one of the main aims of family policy today, and of fundamental importance for both women and men, as well as children.
6. The need to reconcile working and family life is one vital aspect of a whole range of broader social issues, such as declining fertility rates in Europe and changes in family structures. It also has an important bearing on changes in the composition of the labour force, new ways of organising work and the restructuring of social protection systems. Moreover, reconciling working and family life helps to create new employment opportunities for both women and men, as well as for carers. In addition, it can help the employment opportunities for people with disabilities. It can also promote gender equality, facilitate and encourage fathers to assume their caring responsibilities, improve the economic situation of families, and make life better for children, parents, families, local communities and society as a whole. Ultimately, reconciling working and family life should revalue and restructure work practices, upgrade health care and family life and generally help to improve the quality of life.
7. In 1981 the International Labour Organisation adopted Convention No. 156 and Recommendation No. 165 concerning equal opportunities and equal treatment for men and women workers: workers with family responsibilities. These legal and political instruments were among the first international texts to deal coherently and comprehensively with the problem of reconciling working and family life. At the European level, the Revised European Social Charter (1996) guarantees in Article 27, the right of workers with family responsibilities to equal opportunities and equal treatment. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, requires Contracting Parties to ensure that all measures and policies implemented are in children’s best interests. This is still a very live issue and, in many countries, a government priority for the years ahead.
8. The theme of the XXVIIth Session of the Conference of European Ministers responsible for Family Affairs "Reconciling Working and Family Life" also ties in closely with the aims of the Council of Europe’s programme on Children and Families. One of the main questions covered by the previous “Programme for Children” was “children and child day-care” and, under the responsibility of the new Forum for Children and Families, a draft recommendation on child day-care will be prepared.
9. The conditions of family and working life vary widely across Europe, depending on social, cultural and economic factors. However, when the question, “How can working and family life best be reconciled?” came up, it was clear that special attention should be paid, at national level, to the following points:
(i) The problem of reconciling working and family life should be tackled in a coherent manner by all the public authorities and parties concerned, in accordance with their specific powers and responsibilities;
(ii) In order to respect parents’ freedom of choice, policies to reconcile family and working life should include a wide range of integrated measures;
(iii) Reconciling working and family life requires measures to facilitate and encourage men to take a more equal share in family responsibilities.
Themes for discussion
(i) The problem of reconciling working and family life should be tackled in a coherent manner by all the public authorities and parties concerned, in accordance with their specific powers and responsibilities
10. All the public authorities and parties concerned, and also the social partners and non-governmental organisations, are responsible for reconciling working and family life. All of them must find practical ways of meeting needs in this area, at various levels (international, national, regional, local) and in both public and private workplaces. In this regard, it might be helpful to define an overall national policy to provide a framework within which all others partners can develop their contributions. At the same time, efforts to achieve gender equality should take account of the needs of children and families.
11. Moreover, reconciling working and family life should be the concern, not just of the ministers responsible for family affairs and employment, but of all the government ministers.
12. Public authorities will have a leading role to play here, and must ensure that appropriate measures are implemented with the full involvement and co-operation of all labour-market protagonists, and taking account of national circumstances. These measures may be implemented through legislation, collective agreements between the social partners, or individual workplace arrangements. The social partners have special responsibility in this area.
13. With all of this in view, companies should be won over by the business case: arrangements which allow employees to balance the demands of work with their other responsibilities and interests improve retention and recruitment, reduce absenteeism and improve employees’ well-being, and hence their output and productivity. Employers should be encouraged to introduce work-life balance measures which benefit their business as well as their employees. Various incentives, for example tax incentives, might be used to encourage them to do this.
14. Public authorities should encourage employers to explore the possibilities of home-based work and other options for alternative locations for employees who would prefer such arrangements, without penalising them with regard to pay, benefits or promotions. It is essential to ensure that negative effects do not occur when work particularly production or clerical work is done in alternative workplaces.
(ii) In order to respect parents’ freedom of choice, policies to reconcile family and working life should include a wide range of integrated measures
15. Attention should be drawn to the basic principles set out in Recommendation No. R (96) 5 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to member states on reconciling work and family life, and particularly Principle 5, “With a view to promoting the reconciliation of working and family life, action needs to be taken in a number of related priority policy areas, namely:
16. Policies or legal rights covering career breaks or special working arrangements (leave2, part-time work3, and flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking and homeworking, which should often serve the interests of both employers and employees) are crucial to reconciling working and family life. These measures must not, however, be detrimental to the equal treatment of employees in respect of wages, promotion, training, social protection and job security. Special tax arrangements might also be considered.
17. Since the skills of workers returning to the labour market after an absence need to be updated, and they may have difficulty in gaining access to training, governments and employers should introduce measures to facilitate their reintegration. Employers and workers' representatives, whatever the size of the business, should be encouraged to take into account the specific needs of these employees. Employers and workers’ representatives should also be encouraged to take into account the family competencies acquired during parental leave, such as inter-personal and relationship skills and time management.
18. Suitable, flexible, good and affordable services must also be provided to take care of children and other dependants, while respecting parents’ choices in these matters, to make it easier for the women and men to enter the labour market or continue working. Services that assist in the care of children and of ill, disabled or elderly relatives would be particularly helpful to workers.
(iii) Reconciling working and family life requires measures to facilitate and encourage men to take a more equal share in family responsibilities
19. The persistence of the social norm which leaves women to do the unpaid work involved in looking after families, while men generally do the paid work outside, has been widely discussed. Often, indeed, working women have two “jobs”, paid employment and housework (including looking after children and, in many cases, other dependent relatives). However, policies on reconciliation of work and family life should not be directed only at women, as was primarily the case in the past. Policies in this area must therefore allow women and men to reconcile family life and paid employment more effectively in practice.
20. It should be remembered here that the theme of the XXIVth session of the Conference of European Ministers responsible for Family Affairs (Helsinki, 1995) was “the status and role of fathers - family policy aspect”. Reference should also be made to Principle 4 in Committee of Ministers Recommendation No. R (94) 14, which states that “The family must be a place where equality, including legal equality, between women and men is especially promoted by sharing responsibility for running the home and looking after the children, and, more specifically, by ensuring that mother and father take turns and complement each other in carrying out their respective roles”.
21. Reference was also made to the Ministerial Conference held in Stockholm in 19994, at which children said that their father’s presence was essential, not only to share special time with him but also to meet their basic need for affection and security. It is also a source of enrichment and satisfaction for fathers.
22. As well as reinforcing the action taken by governments and the social partners on parental leave, reduced working time, flexible working arrangements and improved care services, it seems necessary to promote new attitudes in the community to encourage men and women to arrive at a fair sharing of the family responsibilities.
23. The first stage in doing this might be to identify the obstacles and constraints - at individual and family level, in the workplace and in the community - which stand in the way of increased participation by men, and then find effective ways of changing the attitudes of individual men and women, public authorities and firms. The strategy adopted might also cover parental education and action to make the public and the media more aware of this issue.
24. Governments might also consider introducing measures aimed exclusively at men, and giving working men rights which would enable them to play a real part in family life, which is one of the conditions of genuine equality. Leave reserved for the father can be an effective means of enabling fathers to participate.
25. Finally, all of those involved in efforts to reconcile family and working life must realise that men’s sharing more in family responsibilities does not simply meet the expectations of children and families, but is also a source of personal satisfaction and contributes to the well-being of the whole family unit.
The Conference focused on three themes:
26. Mr Ahern, the Irish Minister of Social Community and Family Affairs, introduced the first theme “Reconciling Working and Family Life: Policy objectives and challenges” by outlining the modern pressures on families and the need for family friendly policies. He stressed that strengthening families must be a key policy objective for the future. Furthermore, he underlined that traditional attitudes still have to be challenged and spoke about the need for research. He also pointed to the important role of the Conference of Family Ministers and the potential contribution of the Forum for Children and Families.
27. The Norwegian Minister for Children and Family Affairs, Ms Bekkemellem Orheim pointed out that family policy and gender equality policy in Norway have been successfully connected. This has resulted in a unique combination of high fertility rate and high participation of women in the labour market. She underlined that flexible working arrangements adapted to individual needs is another keyword. A larger number and less expensive child day-care centres, as well as longer parental leave with a larger share reserved for fathers, are also important tools. She endorsed Mr Ahern's statement with regard to necessity of changing old traditional attitudes towards women and men, and pointed out that men still constitute an untapped resource in care and domestic duties. She agreed that reconciling work and family life should be further discussed in the Forum for Children and Families.
28. The second theme “The role of the state and public authorities: measures and initiatives" was introduced by Mr Waneck, the Austrian State Secretary for Health, Federal Ministry for Social Security and Generations. The Secretary of State focused on a wide range of measures initiated by state and public authorities in Austria to improve the framework conditions for the reconciling of work and family life. In particular, he informed participants of the new child care pay scheme to be introduced in Austria on 1 January 2002. He stressed the importance of close co-operation with the business community and called on all levels of society to support efforts geared towards changing attitudes and perceptions of gender roles. In this regard, the wishes and needs of parents and people caring for older relatives need to be taken into account. The State Secretary also highlighted the importance of recognising the key role of families in developing the human capital, the basis of successful economies and societies.
29. The Hungarian Political State Secretary responsible for Social and Family Affairs, Ms Szemkeö, underlined that the Hungarian Government is of the opinion that the future of a healthy society depends on its children, who are its most valuable assets. The family is the smallest natural unit of society; each family raising children therefore deserves support. Hungarian family policy rests on three main pillars. The first pillar is the support system including the child-raising benefit, family tax relief, social support, benefits and allowances for parents in employment, free education from the kindergarten up to the first university degree and reduced interest loans for acquiring a flat. The second pillar consists of options enabling parents to stay at home with their children such as child care aid, child-raising benefit and child care support. The third pillar involves support and aid for mothers who intend to work, to study for a second or third degree or to undertake free training and retraining courses. A further important type of support is the benefit for caring for a sick child. Civil society is increasingly involved in social services for children. The home kindergarten system and the Home Start programme are good examples of this.
30. Lastly, the third theme, “The fair sharing of responsibilities between mothers and fathers”, was introduced by Ms Jacobs, Luxembourg Minister for the Family, Social Solidarity and Youth. She went over the background to the principle of equality between women and men, pointing out how it had changed over the years from a narrow concept confined to women to a broader approach that included men and also took account of children’s interests. She attempted to define the fair sharing of parental responsibilities which needed to be practised within the family. She also stressed the advantages of such an approach (particularly in terms of family freedom, the interests of the child, complementarity with the principle of equality, interaction between measures outside the family, and role-sharing between parents). Lastly, she pointed out that it was difficult to assess fair sharing in practice insofar as it involved so many different issues, such as family time, the role played by labour and management organisations and public opinion, attitudes and how they were changing, and the importance of parental education.
31. Ms Joana de Barros Baptista, President of the National Commission for Family Affairs, Portugal, reported on the experience of her own country in this field. Despite the many legal measures and policies that had been adopted in recent years to try to secure the necessary balance between family and working life, it seemed that there were still major discrepancies between the law and people’s attitudes and behaviour. In order to encourage sharing of family duties, a high-profile media campaign had therefore been launched, with positive results. She wondered what else needed to be done to ensure that reconciliation of family and working life became a reality and stressed that several different kinds of measures were needed. In particular, it was necessary to develop policies in this area still further, step up education campaigns in the media so that they had a decisive impact on traditional attitudes include modules on personal autonomy and family sharing in school curricula, and continue research to pinpoint any remaining obstacles. She also underlined that fathers have to realise that looking after children is not only a duty but also a right. Responsible paternity was to be seen as an integral part of the concept of citizenship.
Conclusion and proposals for future actions
32. The Ministers recognised the need to continue and intensify the implementation of measures to enable women and men to reconcile family and working life more effectively, without any discrimination whatsoever, and to the advantage of the child. Moreover, considering that it is the child who is at the centre of family life, the Ministers emphasised the positive effects of such measures for the balanced development of children.
33. With this end in view, the Ministers particularly recommended that:
The governments of the member States:
- pursue their efforts to improve reconciliation of working and family life, in particular by:
§ improving the framework for flexible working arrangements, taking into account that flexibility is intended to encourage fathers to become more involved in family life,
§ encouraging the social partners to introduce work-life balance measures to the benefit of both businesses and employees,
§ providing good, flexible and affordable services to assist in the care of children and other dependent persons,
§ examining the possibility of granting fathers a period of leave after the birth of a child,
§ encouraging coordination in the organisation of working time and services of importance to children and families so that they are more responsive to the needs of families,
§ taking account of the needs of families in town planning and housing policies,
§ challenging the traditional attitudes towards women and men in view of equal sharing of family, social and professional responsibilities,
§ taking account of the wishes and expectations of children,
§ taking account, when designing reconciliation policies, of the varying needs and wishes of people at the different stages of their lives.
The Council of Europe:
- identify, through its Forum for Children and Families ways in which reconciling work and family life can be a factor for social development;
- conduct research studies to highlight the benefits accruing to families and children, employers, employees and society as a whole from the implementation of the above-mentioned measures;
- promote good practices and disseminate information about them in the member States;
- promote more active relationships between parents, carers or teachers, and the responsible authorities;
- examine, through the European Committee for Social Cohesion, how to give effect to the suggestions made during the Conference.
34. At the end of their meeting, the Ministers thanked the Slovenian Government for their flawless organisation of the Conference and for their hospitality and gratefully accepted the invitation of the Portuguese Government to hold the next Conference in Portugal.