Dáil Éireann - Volume 531 - 01 March, 2001
Adjournment Debate. - Family Friendly Work Practices.
Ms O'Sullivan Ms O'Sullivan
Ms O'Sullivan: I realise that most of our minds are on other matters today but, nevertheless, it is family friendly workplace day and it is important that we focus on this issue. It may not be of immediate crisis proportions as is the foot and mouth outbreak, but in terms of the long-term welfare of our society, particularly our families, it is a very important issue. It should be an issue not only on one day in the year, even though this is family friendly workplace day, but throughout the year for people at work, their employers and families.
I would like to raise a number of issues under this heading. The point of raising this matter is to focus on the difficulties which arise for so many families in trying to work out their daily life in terms of the needs of the workplace and their families, their individual needs, the need to interact with each other and, in many cases, the needs of their extended families and the difficulties that causes. It causes financial difficulties in terms of the cost of housing, trying to pay mortgages, pay child care, transport and so on.
One of the main areas where we can make a difference for families is by having a more flexible workplace. Although we have flexi-time and job sharing, it is by no means widespread and it does not have legal standing. Many employers would not entertain such applications in their workplace, so it is not a reality for many workers.
While I welcome the proposal to give fathers the right to attend ante-natal classes and the moves to allow mothers to adjust their working hours to facilitate breast feeding, we need to do a lot more. I raised the issue of breast feeding previously in the context of the extended maternity and adoptive leave. It is very difficult for a mother in that situation to go back to work and I would welcome any measures that would help in that regard.
I would like to focus on the need for paid parental leave. When the Parental Leave Bill was going through the Houses of the Oireachtas, we argued strongly for such leave to be paid. That is the only way such leave will be availed of by a very large sector of our society because people, whether the mother or the father, simply cannot afford to take the extra time off and to do without their wages. We are one of the few EU countries  which does not pay people on parental leave. We must change that.
Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether we can expect some changes in this area to bring us into line with our European neighbours. In countries such as Austria, France and the northern European countries, people are entitled to up to a year's parental leave. That makes a huge difference to the parents of young children. It allows a child's mother or father, or both, to spend time with him or her at a very young age and it overcomes the problem of parents having to bring small babies to costly external child care facilities. If an analysis were carried out, I do not believe it would prove very costly to provide extended paid leave as savings would be made on child care places. Extended paid leave would make family life far happier as people would not be forced to make these difficult choices when their children are very young. I appeal to the Minister to consider favourably the provision of paid parental leave and other family friendly opportunities in the workplace.
Force majeure leave is available for a limited number of days per annum but many people are not aware of this facility, which should be more widely advertised. If a child is ill or has an accident, parents can avail of paid leave for a limited number of days.
We have a long way to go in becoming more family friendly but we now have the finances to achieve our objectives in this area and we should follow the example of our European neighbours.
Miss M. Wallace Miss M. Wallace
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Miss M. Wallace): I am pleased the Deputy has raised this issue on the Adjournment. Today is the first Family Friendly Workplace Day. Earlier today, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, launched a new website – www.familyfriendly.ie – and an information brochure, An Introduction to Family Friendly Working Arrangements, on behalf of the national framework committee for the development of family friendly policies at the level of the enterprise.
Family Friendly Workplace Day, the website and the information brochure are all initiatives of the national framework committee which was established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to support and facilitate family friendly policies in the workplace. Members of the national framework committee include IBEC, ICTU, the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Taoiseach, Finance, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Equality Authority. Funding for the committee's work is available under the national development plan with some £4 million being allocated for the period 2000-06, £1.5 million of which covers the period 2000-02, the duration of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
Family friendly policies mean those policies  which enable workers to combine employment with their family life, caring responsibilities and personal lives outside work. This includes the statutory entitlements of maternity leave – women who commence maternity leave on or after 8 March 2001 are entitled to 18 weeks' paid leave and eight weeks' unpaid leave; adoptive leave – an adopting mother who commences adoptive leave on or after 8 March 2001 is entitled to 14 weeks' paid adoptive leave and eight weeks' unpaid leave; and parental leave – each natural or adoptive parent of a child is entitled to 14 weeks' unpaid parental leave until the child reaches five years of age. However, there is more to family friendly policies than mere statutory provisions. There are a number of family friendly working arrangements, outside of the statutory entitlements, such as flexi-time, part-time work, job sharing, term time, e-working, career breaks and paternity leave which can be implemented through a partnership approach in the workplace.
Many workplaces already have family friendly working arrangements. Research commissioned by the Equality Authority, Investing in People – family friendly work arrangements in small and medium sized enterprises by Hugh Fisher, reveals that 53% of companies in the SME sector operate one or more family friendly working arrangements but, interestingly, many did not realise their enterprises were family friendly.
The website and brochure launched today are aimed at promoting family friendly working arrangements by giving practical information and advice. The website outlines the different types of family friendly working arrangements, contains a comprehensive series of case studies, a frequently asked questions section, an inventory of family friendly publications, and a bulletin board where visitors to the website can ask questions or seek information from other subscribers. The national framework committee, in developing the website, was anxious to ensure that in addition to providing a resource it would facilitate feedback from those interested in developing and those who have already developed family friendly working arrangements. As part of the information and awareness campaign which commenced today, the committee plans a series of follow-on actions. A programme of four regional seminars is planned to run from April to June in Dundalk, Galway, Waterford and Cork. It is hoped that Family Friendly Workplace Day and the regional seminars will be the springboard for a range of new initiatives at enterprise level.
The issue of family friendly workplaces is best addressed on two fronts. First, by adopting a partnership approach to achieve tailor-made solutions to the benefit of the workforce and the employer and, second, through appropriate legislative measures. Such a partnership approach, supported by appropriate legislative measures, will ensure that further family friendly working arrangements will become available in the workplace. The Government is committed to the  approach outlined above through its involvement in the national framework committee and through a number of initiatives being taken on the legislative front.
The Carer's Leave Bill, 2000 and the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Bill, 2000, are currently before the Dáil under the stewardship of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt. When the Carer's Leave Bill, 2000 becomes law, it will provide a significant statutory right for employees to avail of 65 weeks carer's leave.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister's time has concluded but she may continue with the agreement of the House. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Miss M. Wallace Miss M. Wallace
Miss M. Wallace: The Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Bill, 2000, provides for the removal of discrimination against part-time workers and will improve the quality of part-time work. The Bill, when enacted, will ensure that part-time workers may not be treated less favourably than full-time workers.
Furthermore, the existing body of family friendly legislation is under review. I referred earlier to the enhanced legislative measures in relation to maternity and adoptive leave which come into effect for those commencing leave on or after 8 March, following the Government's acceptance of the recommendations contained in the report of the working group on the review and improvement of maternity protection legislation. In addition, my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, yesterday announced a review of the Parental Leave Act, 1998.
In summary, the new proposed legislation and the review of existing legislative measures, together with the work of the national framework committee supported by the social partners and the Equality Authority, will provide the best means of achieving the goal of making workplaces family friendly.
Dáil Éireann 531 Adjournment Debate. Family Friendly Work Practices.