On 21 February 2024, the long-awaited new Labour Law, Law no. 13/2023 of 25 August, will come into force. This new instrument for regulating labour relations pays particular attention to new sectors and their specificities, which were previously not clearly regulated, such as teleworking, work on an alternating basis and intermediation between job search and supply.
Alongside the above-mentioned innovations, introduced in the law for the first time, the new instrument brings a series of new features, such as the regime on the suspension of contracts for reasons of force majeure and unforeseeable circumstances, the introduction of a quota for foreign workers in micro-enterprises and the authorisation to hire them on a labour assignment basis. However, the most celebrated novelty of all is the increase in the period of maternity and paternity leave to ninety days and seven days respectively.
Without raising any kind of presumption about whether or not the practice of accumulating normal holidays with maternity leave will continue, thus increasing the period of absence from the workplace to close to one hundred and twenty days, and without calling into question the importance that maternal care has in the life of the newborn beyond the current sixty days, we would like to look at how this long period of unavailability could have a negative impact on women’s employability rates and could jeopardise all the efforts that have been made to defend gender equality – and to draw the attention of all those responsible for people management to this risk.
For medium-sized and large companies, this novelty is well celebrated, as it will find easy application. Firstly, because these companies have a collective that allows succession plans to be implemented more naturally, minimising the impact of absences due to maternity leave on the business. Secondly, because some of these companies already offer benefits for additional days to those allowed by the current legal framework. So for them, this measure is welcome.
For micro and small companies, however, the outlook is less optimistic. The fear of managing ninety days (or more) of an employee’s absence could discourage managers from hiring them in the first place, which, if it happens, will contribute to an increase in female unemployment or relegate women more and more to informal employment.
We’ve heard several times from receptionists or secretaries who, on returning from maternity leave, find their positions permanently filled
In addition, we can expect to see an increase in the stigma with which many women are treated in the workplace by their managers after announcing their pregnancy. While we have already received many reports of employees being stigmatised or unfairly treated by their managers because of pregnancy and maternity, this new measure is expected to make the situation worse.
For example, we have heard several times from receptionists or secretaries who, on returning from maternity leave, find their positions permanently filled and are forced to stay in other, less qualified jobs. And this act is often a strategy by managers to force them to resign – which often ends up happening.
And this risk of a reduction in female employability is not due to financial reasons. It’s because of the long period of absence. The financial issues are duly taken care of at Social Security level, despite the urgent need for a one-off revision of paragraphs 2 and 1 of articles 27 and 28, respectively, of Decree no. 51/2017 of 9 October, which approves the Compulsory Social Security Regulations and repeals Decree no. 53/2007 of 3 December, to accommodate the now approved ninety days of maternity leave.
Therefore, the ninety days celebrated today could appear to be a poisoned gift for micro and small businesses if they are not accompanied by other legal measures aimed at protecting women’s employment.
One such measure would be the introduction of minimum gender quotas by means of a specific decree, or complementary legislation so that companies are obliged to maintain the same professional category and functions when women return to work after maternity leave.
Women are often stigmatised by their bosses when they announce their pregnancy
To assess this fear, we launched a small survey aimed only at micro and small companies. The survey was answered by forty-three entrepreneurs, twenty-six of whom were women. The respondents hold different positions in their companies: founders, general managers or managing directors. And they all formally employ other people. Asked if they thought the new maternity leave period was too long, 60 per cent said they were satisfied and thought it was good, 30 per cent thought it was too long and 10 per cent said they were indifferent to the period.
Respondents were given a scenario in which their micro or small business had at least one female employee. They were then asked how prepared they were to spend 90 days without her, to which the vast majority, close to 80 per cent, replied that they were not prepared to spend that long without an employee.
And, as a follow-up question, we asked what they would do to minimise the impact of the employee’s absence for 90 days? Seventy per cent replied that they would use temporary staff. Another 20 per cent said they would delegate her duties to another employee and the remaining 10 per cent said they still needed time to think about it.
When asked if they would continue to hire women, 60 per cent said yes and 40 per cent were unsure. And finally, we asked the following question: do you think the number of women formally employed by micro and small businesses like yours will increase or decrease with this new measure? To which 70 per cent replied that it would decrease and 30 per cent that the number would remain the same.
With the data from this brief survey and the results summarised for the purposes of this article, it’s clear that micro and small employers may have an adverse reaction to the new length of maternity leave, which could play against the women themselves.
And we all have a duty to prevent this scenario from materialising and undermining all the efforts we have been making to promote formal employment for women.