A committee of the European Parliament passed draft legislation that would extend paid maternity leave for women across Europe from 14 weeks to 20, and the proposal is set to go before the full European Parliament in early March.
As it currently stands, women in the UK are entitled to a year’s maternity leave, the first six weeks on 90 percent pay, followed by 33 weeks on Statutory Maternity Pay of £123 a week. The rest of the time off is unpaid.
There is some fear that if the law passes, employers may start discriminating against women of child-bearing age, making it harder for them to get jobs.
The Institute of Directors estimated that the proposal, if passed, could cost UK businesses up to £2 billion a year. Small businesses owners could have particularly difficulty shouldering the costs.
Many UK officials are questioning both the necessity and the timing of the proposal.
"We already have a generous system which is better than many European Union countries and works well, balancing the needs of businesses and workers," said UK Employment Relations Minister Lord Young.
"A substantial increase in maternity leave paid at full or near-full pay risks undermining this delicate balance at a time when economies across the EU can least afford it."
The state of the economy may well prove too big a roadblock for the measure, which is not expected to sail easily through European Parliament. A similar proposal was voted down just a year and a half ago.
Dr. Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce said that the Pregnant Workers Directive should be focusing instead on setting standards to protect the health and safety of pregnant workers.
"This vote introduces complexity and uncertainty, which are totally unnecessary, as the UK and other EU countries already have well-developed national maternity pay systems.”