I welcome the Minister to the House.
Maternity Protection Bill, 1994: Second Stage.
This Bill represents a concerted response to a commitment in the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. As such it will facilitate the combining of work and family responsibilities and provide a most important statutory support for women in the labour market. Basically, it is this principle of support for women in employment on which the existing law was based, namely, the Maternity Protection of Employees Act, 1981. Such support has also been afforded to women workers in the Employment Equality Act, 1977, where special treatment with regard to pregnancy and childbirth has been accommodated. Indeed, employment protection for pregnant workers has also been applied in the Unfair Dismissals Act and other labour legislation.
In essence the Bill seeks to acknowledge in statute the true value to society of a woman's role in giving birth, while at the same time seeking to ensure that women should not be disadvantaged in the labour market because of that role. The Government's commitment in the Programme for Competiveness and Work derives from its obligation to implement the directive on the protection of pregnant workers, workers who have recently given birth and workers who are breastfeeding. As an item of the programme broad support for the measure among the social partners is assured and both employer representative and trade union representative organisations have been duly consulted in the preparation of the Bill.
Ireland fully supported the adoption of this directive when it was agreed by the European Council of Ministers in 1992. I am particularly pleased to present this Bill to the Seanad today so that the obligations arising from the Council's decision can be passed into Irish law. The directive also involves significant occupational safety and health and social welfare measures which my colleagues, the Minister for Enterprise and Employment and the Minister for Social Welfare, are implementing separately in parallel legislation.
I should mention at the outset that in this Bill a number of improvements in the protection of pregnant workers, which are separate from and additional to the directive, are being proposed. These have been facilitated by the review of the operation of the 1981 Act and I believe they will be of real benefit.
The Bill confers on employees a number of rights to meet their needs arising from their pregnant, recent birth or breastfeeding condition. While employers will face important obligations under this new legislation they should also benefit from a clear legislation framework to deal with the special requirements of such workers and the obligations which those workers will have with regard to their employment, particularly as regards notifying the employer of their condition.
It was decided that it would be more helpful to employers and employees to prepare the Bill as a composite piece of legisltion on the employment rights requirements of the directive. The alternative would have been to draw up a Bill which amended the 1981 Act. The value of repealing the 1981 Act and re-enacting it here is that it provides, in a single source, the employment rights of this group of workers. The re-enactment of the 1981 Act provisions will maintain existing entitlements to 14 weeks maternity leave and the optional four weeks additional maternity leave as well as the rights of workers to job security while on leave and to return to work after leave.
Employers will continue to be entitled to adequate notification from the employee about her condition and her intentions to avail of entitlements. At the same time the diverse range of potential eventualities associated with childbirth are accommodated and the employee's rights are also respected in those unusual circumstances where notification difficulties may arise. In all, a careful balancing of rights and obligations is retained in this Bill.
In line with the requirements of the directive, the Bill introduces a number of important new provisions. The scope of maternity legislation is broadened to cover all employees who notify their employer of their condition. It also extends the categories of employee to include not just pregnant employees or employees on maternity leave but also employees who have recently given birth and employees who are breastfeeding. These points are addressed in particular in the definitions outlined in section 2 of the Bill.
The 1981 Act applied initially to those working a minimum 18 hours per week and excluded women on fixed term contracts with less than 26 weeks left to run. In 1991, an amendment was made by the Worker Protection (Regular Part-Time Employees) Act to include regular part-time workers. This Bill provides maternity entitlements for which all employees who have notified their employer of their condition are eligible, regardless of hours worked or length of service. This is an important advancement especially as women in the labour market are increasingly to be found in atypical employments where irregular hours or short service periods are so common.
The Bill will also apply to fixed term contract workers until their contract of employment expires, and it explicitly addresses the position of agency workers with a view to establishing greater clarity as to their rights in this area. In the past, there may have been some confusion as to whether an employment agency or the agency's client availing of the employee's services was the employer for the purposes of meeting maternity protection obligations. In future, according to section 2, the party who is liable to pay the employee is to be deemed the employer.
Standard commencement, interpretation, expenses and preliminary and general provisions comprise Part 1 of the Bill. Part II re-enacts the maternity leave entitlements of the 1981 Act and introduces a number of new provisions. The first of these arises from the directive and involves paid time off for ante-natal medical care. Although time off for ante-and post-natal care is provided for in the existing legislation, in future such time off will be with full pay. The Bill, therefore, goes further than the directive and extends the right to paid time off for post-natal care for women who have recently given birth. I am sure Senators will agree that it is important to facilitate health care needs in the weeks immediately after childbirth and it is a practice which should benefit not only the employee but very probably the employer by ensuring that post-natal medical problems are tackled before they might seriously impact on the employee's health and her availability to come to work.
The second new provision is section 16 where it is proposed to entitle the father to leave if the mother has died within 14 weeks of the birth of the child. In such circumstances the Bill will entitle the employed father to leave for the balance of the period of the 14 weeks after the mother's death. Leave provisions along the lines of additional materntiy leave will apply during the final four weeks of this 14 weeks period, with full maternity leave arrangements operating up to that. This significant new provision is not put forward as a cheap version of paternity or parental leave.
Those issues are being actively considered in the context of Programme for Competitiveness and Work deliberations and the European Union social affairs agenda. In opening up a provision of special leave for fathers in the very limited but traumatic circumstances outlined here, I make no apologies for recognising the need not only of the father but also of the newly born child. This type of provision has already met with the approval of this House in its debate on the Adoptive Leave Bill where widowed fathers of newly adopted children were similarly accommodated.
Part III of the Bill reflects the special emphasis in the directive on protection of employees who are pregnant, who have recently given birth or who are breastfeeding. It must be considered in conjunction with occupational safety and health regulations which are being made by the Minister for Enterprise and Employment. I would like, therefore, to outline the general approach being taken on the safety and health side.
As Senators will know, we have already in place a comprehensive occupational safety and health code contained in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989, and regulations made under it. Those provisions require employers to identify any hazards at the workplace, assess the risks which may be present for their employees and take any necessary preventative measures. The new regulations being made by the Minister for Enterprise and Employment will make explicit the obligations of employers, as these relate to employees who are pregnant, who have recently given birth or are breast-feeding.
Once the employee has informed the employer of her condition, the obligation on the employer to take action will apply. If a risk is identified and it is not feasible to remove it, the employer must consider the possibility of moving the employee to suitable other work. Only when solutions to the problems cannot be found within the workplace do the provisions in Part III of this Bill for the granting of safety and health leave come into play. Very similar provisions apply as a protection against nightwork. Here, the employees' doctor must certify that night work for that employee in her condition would be detrimental to her health. The employer's response to this situation must first be to seek to move the employee to day work. When, having failed to find other solutions to the workplace risk or night work, the employer is required to grant safety and health leave, there will be an obligation on the employer to pay the employee for the first three weeks, and to give, on request, a certificate stating the commencement date and expected duration of such leave and describing the circumstances in which it was granted.
It is considered only reasonable that, as the risks exist at the particular workplace, the employer should be obliged to bear some part of the payments during the leave period. For the remainder of the leave period, there will be a social welfare benefit payable on conditions contained in regulations made by the Minister for Social Welfare.
The detailed provisions in regard to the granting of safety and health leave, are contained in section 18. Additional provisions regarding the varying circumstances in which the leave will end are included in sections 19 and 20.
In Part IV the Bill addresses the issue of protection of employment rights. As well as re-enacting the protection of rights during maternity leave, and the general right to return to work at the end of such leave, it extends these rights to cover the newly-provided health and safety leave.
The requirement to provide suitable alternative employment to the employee on return, where it is not practical for the employer to reassign the worker to her original job, is also dealt with in this Part. Here the new contract under which the employee is offered the other work must be not less favourable than the previous one. Notification procedures and postponement circumstances are covered in these sections also.
The whole area of resolution of disputes is dealt with in Part V of the Bill. The disputes provisions under the 1981 Act have, in general, worked satisfactorily. However, in the light of experience some adjustment has been made and it has been decided that all cases of dispute should be referred to a rights commissioner first. The right of appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal from the rights commissioner will, of course, continue to exist but the current option to bypass the rights commissioner service has been removed.
In section 38, dismissal on grounds of pregnancy, giving birth or breastfeeding is prohibited by way of an amendment of the unfair dismissals legislation. By adapting the unfair dismissals provisions the traditional resolution and redress mechanisms for dismissals disputes are maintained. Protection is also afforded under the Bill for the statutory rights of pregnant employees in respect of redundancy payments, terms of employment and employer's insolvency.
The preparation of this legislation has involved very detailed co-ordination with a number of Departments. It has given rise to full consideration of the recommendations of the Second Commission on the Status of Women in this area. In addition relevant agencies such as the Health and Safety Authority and the Employment Equality Agency have contributed to the preparation of these proposals and the normal consultation process with employer and employee interests has also applied. In all the circumstances I would like to hope that we can process the enactment of this Bill without undue delay.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of the Members of this House to this debate. I know there is a genuine interest among many Senators on this subject.
I would emphasise that this Bill is part of wider package of initiatives in this area. It complements the Adoptive Leave Bill, 1993, which is currently before the other House and which provides for leave in relation to adoption of children. As I have already said, the area of parental leave is under consideration in the light of the draft EU directive on that subject. However, as far as pregnant workers are concerned this Bill represents real progress and a real improvement of their rights. I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is rather unusual to be standing on this side of the House. When this Bill was introduced my party was an enthusiastic supporter of the legislation and we still enthusiastically support it. We will not oppose it or be destructive. The Bill is very welcome bringing into one statute the full range of protection afforded in Irish and European law to the pregnant worker, workers who have recently given birth and nursing mothers and it provides for leave to male workers in specific circumstances. In all cases it affords protection against unfair dismissal and it provides for a dispute resolution mechanism. The Bill is in every sense complete and a very good approach is adopted, effectively replacing other statutes and consolidating their beneficial provisions in one statute.
In the Dáil the Bill was generally supported by all parties. However, as the Minister will recall, on Second Stage there was one notable exception. One Deputy labelled the Bill as disappointing, minimalist in its objectives and pedestrian in its approach — column 1048 of the Official Report, of 26 October 1994. The same Deputy labelled the Bill as falling far short of the proposals contained in the report of leave arrangements in a review published by the European Commission Network on Child Care. That review suggested paid and flexible leave arrangements, including at least 16 weeks post-natal maternity leave, two weeks paternity leave, 12 months parental leave and ten days leave for family reasons per child per year. With the extended traditional Irish family of seven, eight or nine children, one shudders to think, when you take into account annual leave, how much time a worker would spend in the workplace.
It is interesting that this rather optimistic set of proposals was the baseline on which the only real opposition to the Bill was voiced in the other House. As the political order has shifted and the party of the Deputy in question is now in Government, I wonder whether we are engaged in a time wasting exercise. Will the Bill be radically amended? Will it be rejected for the Utopian ideal? Will the Deputy in question and her party pound on the Minister's door and demand a radical rewrite of what is a very fine Bill or will she, as I suspect will be the case, simply forget all that was said in the Dáil?
The Minister will recall that in the same debate the Deputy suggested, at column 1050 of the Official Report that "the Minister, in this Bill, is solidifying existing gender divisions when the should have lived up to his office". Does the Minister accept that judgment? I do not. Is the Bill minimalistic in its objectives and pedestrian in its approach? Has the Minister failed to live up to his office? I do not think so. I hope that the answer to all three questions is in the negative and will be seen to be so by all Members of the House because I am interested in assisting the passage of progressive legislation. As was said on this side of the House earlier today, this will be the hallmark of our operations in Seanad Éireann.
This is a good Bill and worthy of support. It is a positive measure and while it could hardly be described, in terms of the language used, as user friendly, it comes very close to the kind of legislation that can be read and understood by the ordinary man and, in this case, woman in the workplace. It replaces the 1981 and 1991 legislation and consolidates and builds on their positive aspects.
In Ireland we have reached an interesting stage in terms of demographic trends. Our birth rate, which was once one of the highest in Europe, is now the second lowest. This fact allows us to approach the issue of participation in the workplace, particularly by women, in a more progressive way. The current birth rate is below the population replacement level. This, too, will pose interesting questions of us as legislators and for planners of public services. Not alone will this lead to a thinning out of the population, it will also radically after living and working patterns. Thus far the impact has been more pronounced on the lives of women but within a short space of time it will have an impact on us all. In less than one generation women's economic and social role has been positively and dramatically redefined. The Bill recognises some of the changes and will put into effect statutory provisions necessitated by them. It is therefore following rather than leading change.
The Bill provides for a degree of flexibility; this won favourable mention in the Dáil. As one Deputy commented on Second Stage, these affairs do not necessarily follow a clock. In sections 11 and 12 the Minister has prudently provided for a degree of flexibility. This is right and proper.
I am most interested in the provisions which clarify the question of risk for pregnant workers or for the employee who has recently given birth. It is particularly important that the right of new and expectant mothers to take time off for ante-and post-natal medical visits is clarified as this is an area where women have encountered difficulty. The provisions of section 16 to which the Minister referred are not just prudent but compassionate and will be welcomed by all.
There are, however, a number of questions on which I would like to hear the Minister's views. How does he intend to monitor the implementation of this Bill? It has been suggested that in the long term it could, unwittingly, militate against women who wish to enter employment outside the home, particularly during their child bearing years. There is some anecdotal evidence of hidden discrimination — and there is also evidence of not too well hidden discrimination against women. We need to make some adjustments in our monitoring systems. Like the Minister and other Members — in a sense this is the reverse side of the coin — I am familiar with the criticisms of smaller employers in particular about the burden such measures place on them. Do we have any objective system for monitoring and evaluating such claims? If not, should we?
The Minister is familiar with my contributions on other Bills he has brought before the House in which I highlighted the need to provide clear and unambiguous information to those who are intended to benefit from the legislation we pass. Legislation put on the Statute Book has to be put into effect. I am confident the Minister will ensure that the people who should know will be made aware of the provisions of this Bill. I would like to see an information system put in place. For example, it would be simple to include a resumé of the legislation in wage packets.
I support the Bill because it is progressive legislation. We will not create any difficulties for the Minister.
I congratulate the Minister on his reappointment to his portfolio. He had undertaken to do much good work and I am delighted he will now be in a position to continue it.
This is important legislation. Twenty years ago women were forced to resign from their jobs on marriage, particularly in the public service, semi-State bodies and in the private sector. We have come a long way since then and women can now remain on in full-time employment. This is right and proper. The legislation at that time militated and discriminated against women.
Progressive legislation was introduced in 1977 and in the 1980s. This Bill is a further step along that road. It is important that pregnant workers are not discriminated against. I am delighted the Minister has introduced this Bill and is affording us the opportunity to pass it into law as quickly as possible so that its provisions can be applied in the workplace at an early date.
The Bill implements an EU directive relating to pregnant works. One could argue that we should be ahead of directives but given the number of directives being issued from Europe at present this is not always possible. The Bill is welcome as it extends entitlements to all pregnant employees, including those who work part-time, regardless of the number of hours worked, and contract and agency workers. This is a major development and extremely important. Up until now pregnant workers not in full-time employment found themselves in an invidious position. That will change under this legislation.
The Bill also extends the right to leave on additional grounds. It should be realised that not every pregnancy is the same nor is every delivery; there can be complications before, during and following childbirth. The Bill contains provisions to cater for these unusual circumstances. Definite ground rules are laid down; an employee should notify the employer, the minimum period of maternity leave is specified, etc. It is heartening that the entitlement to leave is being extended to fathers. If the wife dies during the 14 weeks maternity leave the father will be entitled to take the leave remaining. This is a welcome innovation. It is very important that every child has the opportunity to bond with a parent. In the event of the death of the mother there will be an opportunity for the father to bond with his child. We all strive to achieve a balance and greater equality in every situation.
This Bill deals specifically with people who are in employment but does not cover women who are employers or those who operate their own business in the private sector. The difficulties that arise for women employees arise also for women employers as well as for women public representatives. If a woman politician who delivers a child takes 14 weeks leave the reality is that the males in her constituency will have taken every opportunity to do a hatchet job on her. I am sure the Minister will have to use all his brain power and that of his officials to try to get around that difficulty because I do not see how women politicians can be treated equally given the nature of the political game. I am speaking from experience as I gave birth to two children while a Member of Dáil Éireann and I know exactly what I am talking about. The maximum I could afford to spend out of circulation was two weeks. I do not know how the Minister will address that issue. We aspire to treat all the citizens of the nation equally but let us remember female politicians. Can anything be done to educate our male counterparts on this issue?
I will get the opinion of the Attorney General.
He better get it right.
We may have to wait for a female Attorney General.
This Bill is highly laudable and I commend the Minister for bringing it before the House. The Bill deals also with the difficulties that may arise for female employees who may need leave for ante-natal care or to breastfeed. The working environment can be more detrimental to the health of a woman when pregnant than otherwise and this is being addressed in the Bill. The hours a pregnant woman works have a significant effect on her and night work may not be suitable in most cases. This is dealt with effectively in the Bill.
I hope the Bill gets a speedy passage and is enacted quickly. I am sure all women welcome it as it takes into account not only their position but that of children. While we would like to see greater developments in the area of parental leave, given where we have come from, we have made major progress in the past 20 years. The Minister is to be commended for bringing forward this Bill.
I welcome the Minister to this House. I, too, support this Bill very much. Having been in employment before maternity leave legislation was put in place I had an even shorter time off work when my children were born. I worked until the day before my second child was born and was back to work eight days later. That was not out of choice but because one was afraid of losing one's job. Tremendous progress has been made in this field in the past few years. That development is not only wonderful for women but is a benefit to society generally because the health of a woman and her child depends on how well she is during pregnancy and at the time of birth.
It is particularly good that the Bill also provides for the period of breast-feeding. We have the distinction of having the lowest level of breastfeeding in the world and anything that improves on that must be of benefit. The 1981 Maternity Act made provision for 14 weeks paid maternity leave for women who work outside the home with the option of taking a further four weeks. The Council of the Status of Women has pointed out that this Act had a number of shortcomings and I am glad to see that some of these have been rectified, in particular those relating to paid time off for ante and postnatal appointments. Senator Roche referred to the cost to industry of women attending for such appointments. I think this is being made far more of than it should because, as Senator Roche pointed out, there has been a massive demographic change in just one generation with the completed family size dropping from four to two which is much the same as our European neighbours. If childbirth is to be a twice in a life time experience for women it is difficult to see how such leave will have an appalling effect on industry. I think the economic problems it causes may be greatly exaggerated.
The directive that gave rise to this Bill was greatly welcomed. Exposure to hazadous, physical, chemical or biological agents must be avoided at all costs. It is essential that a woman should take proper precautions to avoid such hazards during pregnancy. It is very important that we will have made provision for paid leave for ante-natal visits as one is always fearful that a woman may hide her pregnancy rather than take care of herself. This Bill protects against that happening. In these days of high unemployment where the woman may be the sole earner in the partnership there is more temptation for a woman to cut back on maternity care.
One could say that our legislation regarding reproductive health is very sexist. It takes two parents to have a child but one hears very little about the effects of hazardóus agents on a man's reproductive process. With a reduction of 50 per cent in the male sperm count in the western world and with infertility due to poor quality sperm this very important area needs to be addressed. However, in health and safety legislation I have seen there has been no reference to this issue. Perhaps this is an area where equality for men needs to be addressed.
In the drafting of the Maternity Protection Bill, 1994, the Maternity Protection of Employees Act, 1981, has been carefully followed but aspects of the 1981 Act which were criticised are also present in the 1994 Bill; for example, the employee is required to give a number — I think there were 14 in all — but I was unable to find one section where the employer was required to provide a written notification. Certainly, one of the most difficult for the employee was that contained in section 9 when they must give four weeks' written notification before the woman intends to return to work. Has the employer any obligation to remind her of this? She must also give written notification for a further four weeks if she wants to avail of them.
The paternity leave referred to in section 16, which Senator Taylor-Quinn mentioned, is very onerous where death certificates may have to be produced by the man if he seeks to use his deceased wife's maternity leave. Indeed, if one examines our maternal mortality figures, only two or three women, thank God, die within the six weeks period where maternal mortality figures have to be returned. Within the 14 weeks which are allowed, there would at most, be only another one or two. How many of those women would be in paid employment in industry and thereby availing of this maternity leave? Many women with small children leave the workforce for a period or take a career break. We are talking about perhaps one man a year who might avail of this leave and there are many heavy duties placed on that man which would require him to use up his late wife's maternity leave. The woman would have died in very stressful circumstances and it would represent a tragic loss to the family. Would it not be possible to allow the man to take the whole period of maternity leave and call it paternity leave, for which there has been much demand recently because the father's rights and responsibilities, even with a new-born child, are considered increasingly important? This is an area where we could begin to introduce paternity leave. It is important to remember that in these tragic circumstances the man is left not only with a new-born baby but also with other small children for whom he must care. The notifications which that man is required to make are quite onerous.
To deal with these notifications, will the Minister allow for some form to be produced because it is difficult for some people to come up with the correct phraseology in letters and to send them in at the right time. When a woman begins her maternity leave she will be given this form and all the various areas where a notification is required would be pointed out to her. Indeed, a small explanatory booklet would also be useful.
Many of the complications of the 1981 Bill are contained in this Bill. In Part III, section 28, notification is required if the woman is fit to return to work. If she stops breast-feeding or recovers from a medical condition she must inform her employer that she is no longer breast-feeding or suffering from this medical condition so that she can return to work. The woman must be ready to return to work within seven days. I realise there has to be a time limit but seven days is quite short. It would be useful if the employer was obliged to point out these requirements to the woman and, in particular, there should be forms available containing this information.
One area with which I am concerned is section 38. I am not a lawyer but having obtained advice on the matter, I wonder whether subsection (1) inadvertently breaches the European Union directive because it removes from the employee part of the protection of the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977. I am referring to the removal of the words "and whose". That seems to create a one year service requirement which I am sure is not what was intended. It has been suggested that section 5 of that Act rectifies the position but it seems to be rather obscure. I am sure the Minister will be able to explain this but I wonder whether the omission of those words from the 1977 Bill will cause a problem. I welcomed earlier in the year the Minister's Adoptive Leave Bill and I believe if this section had more closely followed section 23 of that Bill, it might have been easier to follow.
Like Senator Roche, I am concerned about monitoring the Bill. There are certain parts of it with which I am not happy. I am not clear for example, about who will assess the risks to the women. Will it be included in the firm's safety statement? The guidelines on safety statements say that the services of a competent person must be obtained to assess the risks if the employer is unable to do so. The risks will be different for a pregnant woman than for other employees and those risks must be pointed out to her. There is not any section in the Bill dealing with pregnant or breast-feeding women and I wonder if the Minister will have to include a section covering this area. Very often it is difficult to know what problems might arise with pregnant women until one examines various processes carefully.
Another important point is that new technology can cause some concern to pregnant women. Some years ago there was much discussion in the press about visual display units increasing the rate of miscarrage in women. This was actually found not to be the case. It exacerbated back strain because often people using visual display units did not have proper chairs. Who will monitor the new technology? Will it be the Department of Health, the Department of Enterprise and Employment or the Department of Equality and Law Reform? Who will examine those areas because they are constantly changing and with new processes it is important that a person, when going into manufacturing areas, will study literature to determine whether there has been a particular problem elsewhere with them?
The section dealing with alternative work and conditions of employment is a little vague. The word "substantially" is always difficult to deal with; it is generally described as meaning of not great importance but it is difficult to know what it means in the context of this section. I had dealings recently with a young woman who took maternity leave from her very good job as a buyer and when she came back, although she was restored to that position, it was certainly not the buyer's position she had left. She has very little responsibility in her new job and she sees her prospects for promotion evaporating, although she had a good record up to that time.
I understand from the Minister's statement that disputes between employers and employees regarding risks, etc., will be dealt with, in the first instance, by a rights commissioner and then by the Employment Appeals Tribunal. I am not sure whether that is stated in the Bill.
I presume that section 23 (e), which deals with improvements in work conditions while the women is absent from her job, will apply to the new mother also. For example, if there has been an increase in salary, this will apply to the new mother when she returns from maternity leave.
I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly and I acknowledge the commitment the Minister and his Department have to this area. I hope he will take the criticisms I have made in the spirit in which they are intended. They are merely queries about what I consider to be a very good Bill.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his reappointment. I also welcome the Bill. There is a move in society towards embracing the family within the world of work. It is significant that many married women remain in the work-force and are facilitated in doing so without it having a detrimental effect on their families. The Bill is also about the rights of young babies to have their mothers with them for their first few weeks of life and, through the extension of paternity leave, where the mother has died, to have the father present. As Senator Henry said, fortunately the death of mothers during or shortly after childbirth is quite rare but it is important that the legislation provides for the father in such cases.
This Bill implements the 1992 EC Directive, consolidates previous legislation and the commitment in the Programme for Competitiveness and Work is incorporated in it. There was widespread consultation with employers and unions. It is important that they support the provisions of the Bill which implements the will of the Council for the Status of Women in this area.
Present legislation provides for 14 weeks maternity leave with an optional four weeks leave. It is important that a woman has job security when on maternity leave. The legislation must extend to all workers whether part-time, on contract or agency workers. A greater percentage of women than men do contract and part-time work.
It is important that we encourage as many women as possible to breast-feed if they so wish. Everything that can be done to facilitate breast-feeding mothers should be done. The statistics for mothers who breast-feed are lower here than in other countries. The Bill provides for paid time off for post-natal medical care and that goes beyond the directive. As Senator Taylor-Quinn said all pregnancies are different and the condition of women after births differ. In some cases there is need for more medical care than in others.
Section 18 deals with alternative work. If the work a pregnant woman is doing is unsuitable, alternative work should be found or she should be entitled to leave. I accept Senator Henry's point that this area is vague but it is hard to say exactly what might or might not be suitable. Low paid work is often heavy physical work. The Minister should state in this section where the emphasis should be.
It is important to monitor the legislation to ensure it operates as intended and women should be made aware of their obligation to give notice to the employer. The Adoptive Leave Bill discussed in the House recently goes in tandem with this Bill. This represents progress towards a more human approach to the family and work. People have a family life and obligations outside of work. This should not be seen as a negative factor but rather a holistic approach should be adopted in this area. This should not be a problem for employers.
Part of the fear among Swedish people on entering the EC is that paternity and maternity provisions would have to be reduced. Sweden is a socially advanced society with a good economy. The Swedish example shows that it need not be detrimental to the world of work and profit for pregnant employees or those who are breast-feeding to be properly protected.
Senator Taylor Quinn said that since men do not become pregnant they might steal a march on women in political life. When we campaigned for access to contraception there was a campaign poster featuring three well known men in a pregnant state with the statement that if men became pregnant we would have a more positive approach to contraception. The man bringing this legislation before us has a great deal of understanding and I welcome that.
I would like to see progress on paternity leave but I appreciate that we must take one step at a time. I understand the Minister supports the concept and it is under consideration at EC level. It may be something we will come to in the near future. It is important that fathers be facilitated in playing their full role in rearing children. Sometimes the world of work does not allow them to do so. We should be realistic about the fact that many employees are parents and when children become ill they should have a right to stay at home and look after them without going on sick leave and pretending that they, too, are ill.
I welcome the legislation and the Minister's commitment to it. We are all aware of what is intended and it should be monitored in order to ensure it is implemented fully in the workplace.
I thank all the Senators who contributed so effectively and knowledgeably to the debate. I welcome their kind comments and assure them that all the points they made have been carefully noted and will be considered by me and my Department. I thank Senator Roche in particular for his very strong support for the Bill. He, Senator O'Sullivan and others referred to the monitoring of the Bill. I assure them that my Department will keep the legislation under close review. Interestingly, under the directive a review must be undertaken by member states on the implementation of the Bill within the next two year period. This will give a focus to that. It is worth noting that employer and trade union interests are very much involved with this measure from their perspectives and they will have a major role in the review.
I am conscious of the need to provide information to the public. Senator Henry and others referred to this point. I will ask the Employment Equality Agency, which has a very important role in this area, to develop comprehensive information provisions in this regard. It does an excellent job and it will have a major contribution to make to the monitoring of the legislation and the new positions which it will set up.
The Health and Safety Authority will also have a role and regulations will be issued by the appropriate Minister. Senator Henry highlighted the crucial issue of health and safety for pregnant workers and, in particular, health and safety in the paternity context. She referred to the notification requirements and suggested that perhaps formal proceducers involving forms might be implemented and set up. I will consider her suggestion but my first reaction is negative. From my experience, people get turned off by forms which tend willy-nilly to become more complex than is necessary. The basis of the notification requirements is that they should be informal and that no particular form is required. All that is required is the conveying of the essential and relevant information from one party to the other in any form and without any particular pattern of words being required or necessary. Forms put people off and people regard a letter or memo as adequate once the message is conveyed. If forms are introduced the trend is that one has to use them. Of course people do not have to use the form but they get the idea that they have to use them and then start panicking about where they can get them and fret if they cannot get one. I take the Deputy's point and will consider it.
Notifications are necessary. One has to strike a balance between the position of the employee and that of the employer. The employee is being given important rights under the legislation but employers also have rights. We have to remember at all times that employers have to run a business and have to know who will be available when and how. They have to plan their business arrangements so as to keep their businesses going and make the profit on which that and all the other jobs depend at the end of the day. One has to strike a fair balance between those two positions. We have tried to be fair in balancing the arrangements as between the employer and the employee.
Senator Henry referred to the amendments she has tabled and these can be discussed in more detail on Committee Stage.