ESA sues Norway for discrimination

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European competition authorities are taking Norway to court for alleged discrimination against fathers. The ESA (EFTA Surveillance Authority) doesn’t think they get a fair share of Norway’s relatively generous paid parental leave, with mothers having more rights to the money.

Fathers tend to take an active role in raising small children in Norway, but many have been denied rights to 10 weeks of paid paternity leave if the mother hadn’t been working before the birth of a child. European competition authorities claim that discriminates against fathers, and have decided to challenge Norway’s parental leave rules in court. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The issue has been simmering for years, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reporting paradoxical flaws within Norwegian policy that’s supposed to assure equality between men and women. The policy is aimed at making fathers just as responsible as mothers for caring for small children, all but demanding that they take at least 10 weeks of the paid leave (49 weeks at full pay or 59 weeks at 80 percent pay) allotted to a couple after the birth of a child.

The mother is also allotted 10 weeks (plus three weeks before the birth of a child) with the rest of the 49 or 59 weeks shared between them as agreed. Norway’s conservative government coalition has, in the meantime, proposed that the entire paid leave period be split into three equal portions, with the fathers’ share boosted to a minimum of 15 weeks. If a father does not use the paid paternity leave time to which he’s entitled, the couple loses it.

‘Illegal differences’ in how benefits are granted
Problems with the European competition authorities (with whom Norway must comply because of its membership in EFTA, the European Free Trade Association) cropped up after those at ESA found differences in how leave funding is granted. Fathers, ESA notes, only have a right to claim paid paternity leave benefits if the mother of their children has earned rights to them by having worked outside the home for at least six of the 10 months prior to a birth. Mothers aren’t subject to such demands put on fathers: It doesn’t matter whether the father of their child has been working outside the home.

News bureau NTB reported Monday that ESA is now formally objecting to how a father’s rights to paid leave are tied to the mother’s work situation, while a mother’s rights are not tied to the fathers’s work situation. Norway’s economic agreement with the EU (through its membership in EFTA and its European Economic Area/EØS agreement that gives Norway full access to the EU’s inner market) requires equality as a fundamental principle, notes the ESA.

“When Norwegian authorities systematically and illegally treat women and men differently, it’s the ESA’s job to hold them responsible,” claimed ESA President Bente Angell-Hansen (a Norwegian herself) in a press release Monday.

Equality effort backfiring
The ESA is thus referring the case to the EFTA court, as the third and last step in its formal case against Norway. The European competition authorities first started investigating how Norway distributes its otherwise generous parental leave funding in 2015. It has since received several complaints from Norwegian fathers who were denied paid leave if their partners hadn’t been working. Several meetings have been held between ESA and Norwegian government officials in both 2016 and 2017, with no resolution of the ESA’s concerns.

The Norwegian government, now led by the Conservative Party, has insisted its rules for paid parental leave do not violate equality directives and are not discriminatory. It’s been widely viewed as ironic that Norway’s generous parental leave provisions are now under fire because of what amounts to reverse discrimination. Angell-Hansen herself notes that no EU or EØS regulations demand provision of paid parental leave. “When Norway has chosen to offer it, though, it must be distributed on an equal basis,” she claims.

Costs have held back changes
The sheer cost of fufilling what ESA is demanding is believed to be the main reason that Norway’s rules haven’t been changed. Linda Hofstad Helleland, who now serves as the Conservatives’ government minister in charge of family and equality issues, has put the price of offering paid paternity leave to all fathers at around NOK 800 million (USD 100 million) per year, in addition to the NOK 21 billion that maternity and paternity leave already costs the state and employers who help fund it through mandatory taxes and fees.

Chances are now high that Norway will be convicted of having discriminated against fathers. That in turn can result not only in much higher costs for the country’s parental leave provisions from now on: The state also risks having to pay compensation to fathers who were discriminated against in years past.

The Conservatives have themselves proposed changing the rules so that fathers’ rights would no longer be tied to the mother’s situation. Several other political parties have proposed similar changes, but the issue has stalled in parliament. Labour has proposed funding the estimated cost of funding paid leave for all fathers by eliminating Norway’s so-called kontantstøtte, which offers payments to parents who opt against sending their small children to the country’s heavily subsidized day care centers. State broadcaster NRK reported how that program costs taxpayers nearly twice as much, but most all efforts to cut back on it have failed since it was first introduced by the Christian Democrats party when it briefly held government power nearly 20 years ago.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund