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Dualisation of Part-Time WorkThe Development of Labour Market Insiders and Outsiders$

Heidi Nicolaisen, Hanne Kavli, and Ragnhild Steen Jensen

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781447348603

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447348603.001.0001

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European Union regulations and governance of part-time work

European Union regulations and governance of part-time work

(p.35) 2 European Union regulations and governance of part-time work
Dualisation of Part-Time Work

Sonja Bekker

Dalila Ghailani

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the European Union (EU) dimension of part-time work. It gives a broad overview of EU norms and instrument and sets the issue of part-time work in the wider context of gender equality. Connecting part-time work with gender equality facilitates the analysis in two ways. Firstly, it enables linking the EU's employment policies to fundamental rights such as equal labour market opportunities for men and women. Via this fundamental rights approach the EU's view on part-time work may be tied to concerns of labour market dualisation. Secondly, it helps to analyse the degree of conflict between the aims of the different EU instruments. For instance, do the part-time work directive and the European Employment Strategy (EES) both aim for equal employment opportunities, or do other goals prevail? By answering such questions, the chapter not only reveals the different ways in which the EU deals with part-time employment, but also uncovers whether or not there is coherence between the different EU-level instruments

Keywords:   EU, part-time work, gender equality, involuntary part-time, European social policy


This chapter focuses on the European Union (EU) dimension of part-time work. It gives a broad overview of EU norms and instruments, and sets the issue of part-time work in the wider context of gender equality. Connecting part-time work with gender equality facilitates the analysis in two ways. First, it enables linking the EU’s employment policies to fundamental rights, such as equal labour market opportunities for men and women. Via this fundamental rights approach, the EU’s view on part-time work may be tied to concerns of labour market dualisation. Second, it helps to analyse the degree of conflict between the aims of the different EU instruments. For instance, do the Part-Time Work Directive and the European Employment Strategy (EES) both aim for equal employment opportunities, or do other goals prevail? By answering such questions, the chapter not only reveals the different ways in which the EU deals with part-time employment, but also uncovers whether or not there is coherence between the different EU-level instruments.

Combinations of EU legislation and coordination to tackle inequality

This chapter places the issue of part-time employment in the wider context of the EU’s pursuit of gender equality and improving employment policies. The EU uses a wide range of different instruments to influence national laws and employment policies. Jointly, these instruments form a complex mix of governance patterns (Armstrong, 2011). It means that seemingly distinct coordination tools may have an impact on each other. This understanding of the EU having a range of instruments that are interlinked is the basis of this chapter. It facilitates a broad analysis of the EU’s position on (p.36) part-time work, connecting it to fundamental rights such as gender equality and equal opportunities, while also taking account of the EU’s employment policy aims, for instance, to increase employment rates. All these aims are furthered using both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ law tools (Fagan and Rubery, 2018). EU hard law consists of primary law, such as treaties, and secondary law, such as directives, as well as the rulings of the European Court of Justice (CJEU), which are binding on member states. By contrast, soft law consists of different policy documents, recommendations and declarations that rely on the power of persuasion, the spreading of good practice and softer instruments (Kantola, 2010). Potentially, these different instruments evaluate part-time work differently, emphasising its positive aspects (eg improving labour market flexibility for employers and employees) or looking at its negative consequences (eg lower earning capacity or career penalties). The different instruments could thus complement each other when pursuing common goals (Trubek and Trubek, 2007; Smismans, 2011), for instance, if gender equality is not only set in treaty norms, but also pursued using the EES. Yet, rivalry could also occur, which might result in a competition for dominance (Trubek and Trubek, 2007), for instance, if part-time employment is seen as a means to get people into the labour market without really minding the negative consequences. From a labour market inequality perspective, paying attention to the negative consequences of part-time employment is essential, especially if these negative consequences are not distributed equally among the different labour market groups. Indeed, groups incurring a particularly high risk of being in atypical employment may be seen as ‘outsiders’ to the labour market (Emmenegger et al, 2012). Part-time work is highly gendered: women are employed part-time much more often than men. Although part-time work gives women an option to combine work and care, it also comes with disadvantages, such as career penalties and lower pensions upon retirement (Ghailani, 2014; Lyonette, 2015). The question is how the different hard and soft law instruments of the EU deal with part-time work. This chapter explores whether ‘part-time’ has different meanings and implications when it comes to the different EU instruments that guide policies for employment and equal opportunities in member states.

The next sections first outline how gender equality is dealt with in the EU legal framework: the treaties, directives and case law. Whereas the treaties do not address part-time employment, it does set norms regarding the equal opportunities for men and women, including on labour market participation. Such norms are relevant in assessing the (p.37) Part-Time Work Directive and related case law. Then, the chapter looks at soft law instruments dealing with both gender equality and part-time work, including the overall views and purposes of the EES. Next, the chapter focuses on the specific recommendations that the EU has made on part-time employment to six of its member states in 2017 and 2018. The conclusion discusses whether there is coherence in the goals of the different instruments, or if there is a degree of rivalry.

Gender equality in the EU legal framework

Gender equality is a fundamental human right and a moral imperative linked to principles of justice and equity, with political, economic, social and cultural aspects (Ghailani, 2014). It is considered to be a key factor for well-being and happiness (by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]), and is guaranteed internationally (by the International Labour Organization [ILO] and the United Nations [UN]) and at European (by the Council of Europe) and national levels by a substantial body of legislation (Ghailani, 2014). The EU has been a front-runner in gender equality on a number of occasions. It included gender pay equality as a principle in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and afterwards introduced legal directives on equal pay and sex discrimination, applicable to all member states, in the mid-1970s (Rubery, 2015; Fagan and Rubery, 2018). Although the original focus on equal pay and on avoiding distortions of competition between member states has gradually been replaced by concerns for equality as a fundamental right, its economic roots still constitute an integral part of the gender-equality principle (Bain and Masselot, 2012). The EU’s approach to gender reflects three conceptualisations of equality (Plomien, 2018): equal treatment, granting legal equality rights; equal opportunities, providing for different statuses via positive action; and equal outcome, requiring attention to all aspects and processes involved in (re)producing inequality and bringing about their transformation through mainstreaming. Plomien (2018) underlines that gender equality can be achieved through these combined approaches by overcoming the equality–difference dilemma and facilitating the transformation of unequal gender relations. These approaches partly come back in the use of the different hard and soft law instruments that the EU has, providing input to analyse which perspective the EU’s instruments take when dealing with part-time work and inequality.

(p.38) Gender equality and part-time work in hard law: treaties, directives, case law

Under the EU legal framework, treaties and directives must be complied with. Originally, Article 119 of the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) (1957) (now 157 TFEU) was the only provision setting out the principle of equal pay for men and women for equal work or work of equivalent value. Its purpose was strictly economic: to eliminate distortions of competition between companies established within the EEC. Its fundamental character has been completed with the addition of Article 13 EEC (Article 19 TFEU), making it possible to adopt a directive on gender equality outside the workplace. The Treaty of Amsterdam promoted gender equality as one of the central tasks of the EU (Article 2 EC), and introduced the concept of ‘gender mainstreaming’, requiring the European legislator to take account of the principle of gender equality when drafting and implementing all legislation (Article 3 EC). Article 141(4) EEC (Article 157(4) TFEU) allows positive action measures granting specific advantages for the under-represented sex in working life. These provisions were confirmed in the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). In addition, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000) recognises the right to gender equality in all areas, allows for the possibility of positive action (Article 23), sets out rights relating to the reconciliation of family and working life, and bans any discrimination on the grounds of sex (Article 21). Since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Charter has become a binding list of fundamental rights (Article 6(1) TEU) (Burri and Prechal, 2014; Ghailani, 2014). In case law, the CJEU has undeniably contributed to the progress made in gender equality. It has handed down essential rulings based on scanty legal provisions, interpreting these generously and extending the substantial protection offered by EEC law to many areas, including pregnancy, positive action and occupational pensions. It has strengthened the application of the law by developing the principle of the direct effect of directives, the concept of indirect discrimination and the concept of the reversal of the burden of proof, all principles codified in the form of directives (Carracciolo di Torella and Masselot, 2010).

The strengthening of the gender dimension of social policy, including on part-time work, was laid down in secondary law in the form of directives. Between 1975 and 2010, 15 directives were adopted in order to ensure the equal treatment of men and women at work, prohibiting discrimination in social security schemes, setting out minimum requirements on parental leave, providing protection (p.39) to pregnant workers and recent mothers, and setting out rules on access to employment, working conditions and remuneration, as well as legal rights for the self-employed. According to the European Commission (Commission or EC), these measures aim to create uniform rules by removing obstacles to women’s participation in the labour market, and by combating stereotypes. However, the idea of an unselfish Commission guided exclusively by a wish to improve gender equality must be taken with a pinch of salt. Stratigaki (2004) points out that these measures, defined as gender-equality policies, are, in fact, designed to create a more flexible labour force by incorporating flexible and temporary work carried out by women (see also Fagan and Rubery, 2018). From this perspective, European efforts to increase gender equality are merely a way of reformulating neoliberal internal market principles, thus making them more attractive to public opinion. The Part-Time Work Directive (97/81/EC) is a particularly good example, with its dual goal of removing discrimination against part-time workers while promoting flexible employment (Bell, 2011).

Despite their wide development, the EU has only recently begun to regulate flexible working arrangements. Initially, changes in working patterns were reached by private arrangements, lacking relevant legislation both at the national and EU levels. As mothers are often engaged in these forms of employment, flexible working arrangements have raised gender-equality concerns (Caracciolo di Torella and Masselot, 2010). In June 1994, both the ILO’s Part-Time Work Convention No. 175-2 and Recommendation No. 182 on Part-Time Work were adopted, regulating part-time work under international law for the first time. According to Murray (1999), the adoption of the said convention has had a direct effect on the legislative process of the EU in this field. In December of the same year, the Essen European Council stressed that the promotion of employment may be achieved ‘in particular by a more flexible organization of work in a way which fulfils both the wishes of employees and the requirements of competition’ (Guobaitė-Kirslienė, 2010: 319). Thus, in contrast to the EU equality regulation implemented in the 1970s and 1980s, the Part-Time Work Directive is not primarily formulated in terms of the equal treatment of men and women (Council of the European Union, 1997). However, gender equality is explicitly mentioned, arguing that good-quality part-time work contributes to equal opportunities for men and women, and increases the number of job opportunities. Still, the directive was especially designed as a tool of employment policy, codifying the use of atypical work and contributing to the aim of increasing employment rates. On the one hand, it aims to remove (p.40) discrimination against part-time workers and to improve the quality of part-time work. On the other hand, it facilitates the development of part-time work on a voluntary basis and contributes to the flexible organisation of working time, meeting both the needs of employers and workers (Annex, Clause 1). Some scholars underline this balancing act of the directive (Barnard, 2006; Bell, 2011), improving the employment conditions of part-time workers while legitimising the expansion of this form of work. Increasing the number of part-time jobs assisted the EU in meeting its objectives for raising employment rates under the EES (1997). Moreover, while the directive guarantees equal access to the European labour market for workers with care-giving tasks, it does so without guaranteeing them a minimum level of social welfare. As highlighted by Bleijenberg et al (2004), the EU recognises workers’ needs to combine a job with domestic responsibilities but leaves the financial and practical consequences of this combination to the individual. Clause 5 crystallises the flexibility agenda: it requires member states, and social partners, to review obstacles to part-time work and ‘where appropriate’ to eliminate them. In addition, employers are placed under a duty ‘to give consideration’ to requests to transfer between full-time and part-time work (and vice versa). Employers should also ‘facilitate access to part-time work at all levels of the enterprise’ (Clause 5).

Several authors (Jeffery, 1998; Bleijenbergh et al, 2004; Bell, 2011) have questioned the effectiveness of the directive, although for some countries, a number of positive effects may be noticed as well (see Chapter 1; see also Fagan and Rubery, 2018). Caracciolo di Torella and Masselot (2010) conclude that while the directive might have increased labour market flexibility, it has failed to advance the reconciliation of work and family life. It forbids discrimination on the grounds of unfavourable treatment but may introduce hazardous justifications. It encourages part-time work but does not allow employees to really have control over their choices. It seeks to improve the quality of part-time work but relevant research shows that flexible working arrangements are frequently confined to low-skilled and low-paid jobs, whose inherent precariousness has a negative impact on reconciliation (Fudge and Owens, 2006). These jobs remain heavily gendered and reinforce either women’s poverty or financial dependency on their partners (James, 2009). Table 1.1 in Chapter 1 illustrates how gendered part-time employment is, although the gap between male and female part-time employment widely varies per country. In OECD countries, 26% of women work part-time, while this percentage is much lower for men (9%). In the Netherlands, 60% of women work part-time. (p.41) Although Dutch men also often work part-time (19%), this percentage is much lower than for women. In Poland, part-time employment is much less widespread, being 6% of total employment in 2016 on average.

Not all part-time work is involuntary (see, eg, Figure 1.2 in Chapter 1). In some countries, part-time workers seem satisfied with the number of working hours they have. Here, the scores per country show wide variety. Moreover, in some countries, involuntary part-time work is rising (Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland), while in other countries, it is decreasing (Germany). Building on the findings that especially women tend to work part-time more often, Figure 2.1 gives more details on the reasons why women work reduced hours. Figure 2.1 gives the reasons for working part-time, focusing on the six case countries that will be explored in more depth in the remainder of the chapter.

European Union regulations and governance of part-time work

Figure 2.1: Main reason for part-time employment, women aged 20–64, 2017 (%)

Source: Eurostat

(p.42) Again, there is a wide variety across countries. In Italy (57%) and Cyprus (63%), the majority of part-time working women say that they could not find a full-time job, likely referring to underemployment. In the Netherlands and Germany, less than 10% of part-time working women state this reason. German and Dutch women often mention care for children or incapacitated adults as a reason for working reduced hours. It is unclear whether we should interpret their answers as being voluntarily or involuntarily in part-time employment. In Ireland, women also give care responsibilities as a main reason for working part-time. Conversely, in Poland, care responsibilities are much less often mentioned. Here, other reasons prevail. Based on this information, it is difficult to judge whether these workers would be in good, mixed or bad working conditions and social protection.

The difference across countries suggests that the economic and institutional settings of countries pose different obstacles to women in their choices to work either part-time or full-time (see also Bekker et al, 2017). This is why authors call for paying better attention to a latent desire to work more hours. This tends not to show up in statistics that measure (in)voluntary part-time work (see Chapter 1). Bollé (2001) recommends measuring involuntary part-time work in several complementary ways as the distinction between involuntary and voluntary part-time work is not always straightforward. For instance, a person might claim to work reduced hours due to family responsibilities but the actual reason might be past inability to find work. Moreover, while a person could have a desire to work more hours at present, he or she could still give their original reason for working part-time. Conversely, a person might give economic reasons for not working more hours while the actual desire to increase working hours has ceased to exist. By posing additional questions, a small Dutch study revealed a larger percentage of women who would want to work more hours, for instance, if their employer would ask them to or if they could adjust working times better to their private situation (Portegijs, 2009). Bollé (2001) argues that distinguishing properly between involuntary and voluntary part-time employment helps in designing suitable economic and social policies. This could be relevant when viewing EU policy advice to countries, for instance, via the EES (see later).

EU gender equality and part-time work through soft law

Together with the standard legislative and binding legal instruments, soft law instruments have gradually gained more importance in the (p.43) field of gender-equality and labour market policies (Plomien, 2018). In 1997, the EU launched the EES, a key example of soft law. Other examples are strategic programming tools such as the European Pact for Gender Equality 2011–2020 and the Commission’s Equality Strategy. At the beginning, gender equality was strongly present in the EES but it is no longer visible as a distinct goal in the EU’s current growth strategy. In the EES, it formed one of its four pillars, which included: improving employability; developing entrepreneurship and job creation; encouraging the adaptability of businesses and their employees; and strengthening equal opportunities for women and men. The equal opportunities pillar was based on four principles: adopting gender mainstreaming; tackling gender gaps in unemployment, job segregation, pay and employment; reconciling work and family; and facilitating reintegration into the labour market (Plantega et al, 2008). In 2000, the EU adopted a strategy for Europe to become a leading knowledge economy (the so-called Lisbon Strategy), complementing the EES objectives. It adopted a specific women’s employment rate target of 60% by 2010 (alongside a 70% target for both sexes combined). Targets for childcare coverage were added at the 2002 EU Barcelona summit, complementing the employment rate targets. Being voluntaristic, the effectiveness of these processes in promoting gender equality has been questioned. Rubery (2015) puts forward two arguments to show that they kept gender equality on the agenda in member states with limited traditions of addressing gender equality. First, all member states had to engage with the issue of gender equality in their employment action plans. Second, these principles of gender equality and gender mainstreaming were included in the criteria for accessing European structural funds. However, she recognised that the early 2000s may be considered a high watermark for EU gender-equality policy, with a gradual erosion of some of these commitments. The equality issue has progressively become less visible as there has not been a separate equality guideline since the mid-2000s (see also Fagan and Rubery, 2018). The Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, agreed in 2010, reinstated social policies into the EU agenda but no longer stipulated any quantified goals on gender equality. As part of Europe 2020 and the EES, the Commission makes joint evaluations of all member states in their Joint Employment Report (JER) and evaluations of individual countries in the so-called country reports. Occasionally, these country reports address how the Commission sees the link between part-time work and gender equality, and places these issues in the wider context of employment and social policies (see later).

(p.44) The objective of the EES to increase the rate of employment to 75% can hardly be achieved, according to Pimminger (2015: 5), without increasing female labour participation. This argument is also put forward in the Commission’s Equality Strategy. Recently, however, the European Pillar of Social Rights (ESPR) has brought some changes, with an explicit re-articulation of social objectives for fair labour markets and welfare systems, and commitments to gender equality (Plomien, 2018). It is to be implemented through a combination of hard and soft law (EC, 2017). The clear status of gender equality in the EPSR’s principles and rights can be seen as an improvement on the invisibility of gender in the Europe 2020 Strategy. In the preliminary outline, gender equality was contained in the fifth domain dedicated to ‘gender equality and work–life balance’ (EC, 2016a). The final proposal made substantive improvements by bringing gender equality up to the second domain and moving ‘work–life balance’ to Chapter II on fair working conditions. This resulted in giving gender equality a more general and important place, and included work–life balance among the issues dealing with the working environment (Plomien, 2018).

European Pact for Gender Equality 2011–2020

A connection between the position of women on the labour market and gender equality is also part of the European Pact for Gender Equality, originally adopted in 2006. The Pact emphasises the importance of using women’s untapped potential in the labour market. In the context of Europe 2020, it emphasises the need to remove obstacles to women’s participation in the labour market in order to meet the objective of a 75% employment rate by promoting women’s empowerment in economic and political life and taking steps to close gender gaps, combat gender stereotypes and promote better work–life balance for both women and men, and so on. This set of instruments is intended to integrate the gender perspective into all policies carried out at European and national levels by including this aspect in the impact assessments carried out before new policies are developed. The weak point of the Pact is the lack of precise, quantified targets (Ghailani, 2014).

In 2010, the Commission adopted a ‘Strategy for equality between women and men 2010–2015’ (EC, 2010), providing a global framework for defending gender equality. It combined specific measures with developing an equality perspective into all EU policies. It included a series of actions based on the five priorities identified in the Women’s (p.45) Charter (2010) (Ghailani, 2014). The strategy emphasised the contribution made by equality to economic growth and sustainable development, and defended the creation of a gender-equality dimension in the Europe 2020 Strategy. It led to a better knowledge of the various dimensions of gender inequalities, to a greater awareness within the population and policymakers of the necessity to address gender inequalities, and to the elaboration of models and indicators in favour of gender mainstreaming (Heine, 2015). However, Crepaldi et al (2015) highlighted two main defects of the strategy: first, a lack of sufficient resources for effective implementation because no budget has been earmarked for the strategy; and, second, the evident deficiency caused by the weak institutionalisation of gender mainstreaming in the EU decision-making process. Faced with the Commission’s reluctance to adopt a new strategy in 2015, the competent ministers and secretaries of state from 21 member states wrote an open letter urging the EU commissioner responsible to adopt a new gender-equality strategy (Pimminger, 2015). The Commission finally issued a ‘Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016–2019’ (EC, 2015). It focuses on five priority areas, of which the first may be seen as having a direct link to part-time employment: increasing female labour market participation and equal economic independence; reducing the gender pay gap; promoting equality in decision-making; combating gender-based violence and human trafficking; and promoting gender equality and women’s rights across the world. Hubert and Stratigaki (2016) note that whereas this text contains interesting benchmarks, it is not a Communication to the European Parliament and the Council; it has the lowest status as an internal document issued by Commission services without the agreement of the College of Commissioners and contains no binding provisions or requests for member state commitments. Even the Council criticised the Commission’s approach as ‘a large number of Member States stressed that a formal Strategy endorsed by the Commission was needed and expressed their disappointment in having received an informal working document instead’ (Council of the European Union, 2015).

Digging deeper into soft coordination: the role of part-time work in policy recommendations

As mentioned earlier, the EU has an ambiguous view on part-time work, especially in the directive. It wants to increase labour market flexibility while also being mindful of the protection of part-time workers and setting norms for gender equality. In this section, we (p.46) put the EU coordination of member state policies to the test. Do the evaluations of the EU on national labour market and social policies take notice of part-time work? Do these evaluations address the negative aspects of part-time work and its gendered character? Figures 1.1 and 1.2 (Chapter 1) and Figure 2.1 show that national labour market trends are quite dissimilar, which might reflect differences in national institutional settings, such as the availability of affordable childcare, which affects the choices of (wo)men to work either part-time or full-time. Via the EES, the Commission may draft recommendations suggesting improvements for national policies and institutions. However, the overall labour market evaluation in the JER 2017 only occasionally addresses part-time work, for instance, the gender employment gaps that are especially acute for parents. The Commission (EC, 2016b) notes that women are more likely than men to accept childcare responsibilities and more often involved in long-term care responsibilities. Moreover, women face financial disincentives when entering the labour market or wanting to work more, and are consequently more likely to reduce working hours or exit employment altogether. The Commission also addresses the gender pay gap, and concludes that a reason for the lower earnings of women is their higher involvement in part-time employment, which is less well remunerated than full-time jobs per hour of work. Lower earnings also have consequences for pension entitlements. Here, the Commission clearly sketches the negative aspects related to part-time work while noticing that women more often work part-time and are therefore more often exposed to the negative consequences of part-time work.

As said earlier, the latest guidelines of the EES have been better attached to the ESPR priorities, including gender equality. The guidelines give guidance to the member states on implementing reforms, and form a basis for country-specific recommendations (CSRs) to the member states. The introduction to the guidelines refers to the objectives of full employment and social progress, as set out in Article 3 TFEU. Analogous to the treaty, the guidelines do not mention part-time employment, but give attention to equality between men and women. For instance, in Guideline 6 on ‘Enhancing labour supply: access to employment, skills and competences’, the EU aims to remove barriers to participation and career progression in order to ensure gender equality and to increase the labour market participation of women. This also means equal pay for equal work, the reconciliation of work and family life, and access to suitable family leaves and flexible working arrangements for both women and men. In Guideline 8 on ‘Promoting equal opportunities for all, fostering social (p.47) inclusion and combating poverty’, similar social security provisions are mentioned, also from the perspective of gender equality.

Thus, the norms on gender equality are present in the employment guidelines, yet part-time employment is not mentioned as a separate issue. Also, the more visible parts of employment coordination, such as the quantitative targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy, do not consider part-time work. For instance, the target to have an employment rate of 75% does not consider part-time employment. All persons who, during the reference week, did any work for pay or profit for at least one hour are regarded as employed. Thus, from the EES itself, few conclusions can be derived on the standpoint of the EU regarding part-time employment; rather, there are more general references to aims such as higher female participation in the labour market, gender equality and equal opportunities. The next section explores whether this is different when it comes to tailored policy advice to countries.

Employment policy coordination: CSRs

After the evaluation of each country, and having the employment goals in mind, the Commission drafts CSRs, which constitute policy advice tailored to the particular situation of a country. This section summarises the evaluation of six countries, selected based on their dissimilar incidence of (involuntary) part-time employment. The analysis is based on the CSRs for 2017 and 2018, supplemented by information from the 2017 country reports that provide background information on countries. All these documents are publicly available on the Commission’s website.

Matching the differences in part-time work between the six countries, the EU’s policy advice on employment differs considerably. However, in none of the countries is part-time employment seen as a challenge or a stand-alone issue. Rather, the evaluations address chances to move into the labour market and labour market institutions that support or hinder the employment and income of (mostly) women. Consequently, the Commission mentions childcare facilities and leave arrangements as policies that countries could develop; however, such observations hardly ever translate into a CSR. For the Netherlands, the country with the highest part-time employment rates but low scores on involuntary part-time work, the issue is not addressed at all. This is remarkable as Dutch women often state that care for children and/ or incapacitated adults keeps them from getting a full-time job. Likewise, for Cyprus, the evaluation hardly addresses the high incidence of involuntary part-time work.

(p.48) The country reports are much more interesting for viewing the Commission’s view on part-time work, and thus also the outlook on how countries could (or should) reform their employment policies in order to improve the position of and support for part-time workers. Here, the Commission connects the issues of part-time employment and gender equality to wider labour market and social security issues. Depending on the country, these may include the taxation system, pension entitlements, care facilities and parental leave systems. For example, at times, the country report on Ireland addresses the gender employment gap and the main reason to work part-time, observing that Irish parents are frequently forced into inactivity and part-time work due to the lack of care services. Around 27.4% of inactive women aged 20–64 do not work because of care responsibilities for children or incapacitated adults (compared to 4.5% of Irish men aged 20–64). Especially single parents, most often women, suffer from the lack and high cost of childcare support. Interestingly, the Commission broadens the analysis to include the meagre care facilities for fathers as an obstacle to female labour participation. Although Ireland has recently introduced paid paternity leave, parental leave is still unpaid, thus encouraging the secondary earner (mostly women) to step out of the labour market to take care of children. These evaluations reveal the ability of the Commission to look beyond the statement of women that they work part-time due to care responsibilities for children, thus questioning whether this choice is ‘voluntary’ (cf Bollé, 2001). However, the Commission does not undertake this same exercise for all countries, as the case of the Netherlands illustrates. In spite of the high levels of part-time employment in the Netherlands, this issue is hardly addressed in the 2017 country report. The Commission observes an employment gap between Dutch men and women in terms of full-time equivalents, and knows that this gap is one of the highest in the EU. However, contrary to the conclusion for Ireland, the Commission explains the Dutch situation as voluntary choices regarding work–life balance. Although the Commission sees that institutions and policies may encourage such choices, it does not challenge Dutch policy choices.

In its analysis of the German labour market, the Commission again nuances statistics that look well at first sight, developing complex analyses on part-time work and gender equality. It is a clear demonstration of the (accumulating) negative aspects of part-time work that particularly women have to deal with. Whereas the country report acknowledges Germany’s strong labour market performance, it underlines that this relates to an increase of part-time work, particularly (p.49) among women. Moreover, the Commission finds that disincentives to work remain in place, especially for secondary earners. Due to the high share of part-time work, Germany ranks in the bottom third of member states in terms of its full-time equivalent employment rate of women, especially affecting women with a migrant background and women with care responsibilities. The Commission also points at quality full-time childcare, all-day schools and long-term care as ingredients for increasing woman’s labour participation. In this respect, the Commission also addresses the high gender pay gap. Moreover, the taxation system regarding secondary earners (mostly women) hampers female full-time employment. The Commission furthermore relates the rise in in-work poverty to the high share of part-time employment. Lastly, part-time employment is linked to low pension coverage as there is a high risk of the insufficient accrual of public pension benefits. Such observations have been converted into CSRs prior to 2017, yet Germany has made little progress in addressing the negative side effects of part-time employment and in removing the causes of part-time work. Moreover, there is little progress in reducing disincentives to work for secondary earners.

The Commission also takes a broad approach when analysing Italy. The country report addresses female employment predominantly as an underutilisation of employment potential, based on the very low employment rate of Italian women. The Commission sees this as a large economic cost as women have relatively higher educational attainment rates than men. The tax system discourages secondary earners from participating in the labour force, and the inactivity trap (financial disincentives to move from inactivity and social assistance to employment) is larger than the EU average. This is combined with limited access to affordable childcare, related also to the widening employment gender gap in households with children and elderly persons. As in Ireland, the Commission notices that Italian paternity leave is among the shortest in Europe, affecting both women’s employment and gender equality. Part-time employment is not mentioned, and it seems that in the case of Italy, the Commission finds that getting a job is, at present, more important than the length of the working week.

Furthermore, the evaluation of Cyprus pays little attention to the incidence of part-time employment, in spite of the high rates of involuntary part-time employment. The country report raises concerns about the growing inequality in Cyprus, and points to the worsened working conditions during the crisis as a main factor of increased inequality, including involuntary temporary and part-time (p.50) employment, and downwards-adjusted wages. Female employment is addressed slightly, discussing the low public investment in long-term care, leaving the provision of such services to the private sector or informally to family members. In this respect, the Commission observes that some people with care responsibilities, mainly women, could be pushed into flexible working arrangements or out of the labour market. At the same time, a recent growth in the number of live-in carers has had a positive effect on female employment.

Within the six countries, there are two observations where part-time work is welcomed as improving labour market performance. One is concerning Germany, where the country report addresses Flexi-Rente, which facilitates the transition of older workers into retirement via combining early retirement and part-time work by reducing pension deductions in the event of extra income. The second is Poland, where part-time employment rates are low. Although part-time work is hardly raised in the 2017 country report, the Commission sees the limited use of part-time employment as limited labour market flexibility. It suggests that this may be problematic, in particular, for older workers or people with care obligations (often women). Clearly, part-time work is seen here as a means to improve labour market flexibility without potential negative consequences.

Although the country reports connect the issue of female employment to issues of care facilities, taxation systems and income, the 2017 and 2018 CSRs hardly prioritise these matters. The Netherlands and Cyprus did not receive CSRs at all, either on part-time employment or on the employment opportunities of women. In 2017 and 2018, both Poland and Italy received a CSR to increase labour market participation. For both countries, this also included CSRs on the employment of women or ‘secondary earners’; however, in 2018, the CSR to Poland no longer specifically mentions women’s employment. Germany was recommended to lower disincentives to work for secondary earners and to facilitate transitions to standard employment in 2017 (see Chapter 10), while the 2018 CSRs quite clearly address the issue of part-time work by recommending Germany to reduce disincentives to work more hours, including the high tax wedge. Ireland was recommended to improve the social infrastructure, including quality childcare, both in 2017 and 2018. It seems that whereas the country reports address the complex issue of part-time employment and its potential negative consequences, also in view of gender equality, this does not find a full translation into CSRs. Rather, the CSRs, if given at all, focus on getting women into employment, regardless of the number of working hours. Moreover, CSRs do not (p.51) address whether part-time work should be voluntary and of high quality. Of the six countries explored, only the CSR for Ireland speaks of supportive facilities to enable (wo)men to combine work and care better.


This chapter takes a broad approach to the EU dimension of part-time work, setting it in the wider context of gender equality. It thus explores the EU governance mix of hard and soft law for addressing part-time work, answering the question of whether the different EU-level instruments are coherent or pursue conflicting goals. Whereas the treaty does not mention part-time work, it sets a clear norm on gender equality as a fundamental human right. From this perspective, part-time employment may be questioned, for women have a much higher risk of being in this type of atypical employment, and consequently deal more often with related structural and long-term disadvantages, such as career penalties and lower pension entitlements. However, part-time work also facilitates the combination of work and care, giving not only employees, but also employers, flexibility in the labour market. The Part-Time Work Directive illustrates this ambiguity nicely. It refers to gender equality but is set up as a tool for employment policy. It is seen as a balancing act of improving the working conditions of part-time workers while legitimising the growth of this form of employment.

The evaluation of the Commission as regards ‘soft’ employment policy coordination activities reveals a similar ambiguity. While the employment guidelines include concerns about gender equality, they do not mention part-time employment. At times, the 2017 country-specific evaluations of and recommendations for six countries show the capacity of the Commission to take a broad approach to the labour market position of women, connecting it to the institutional setting of a country, such as childcare facilities or taxation systems. Occasionally, it even connects the poor paternity leave rights of fathers to the labour market position of mothers. However, such a broad approach is not part of the analysis of all countries. In this respect, it is interesting to see how Ireland gets questions about the reason why women work part-time (care responsibilities), while similar statistics do not lead to questions of the Netherlands. Moreover, to some countries, such as Italy, increasing female labour participation seems more relevant than their working time per week. In Germany and Poland, more part-time work is seen as a way to get or keep some groups (older (p.52) workers, women) in employment, without questions being asked about potential disadvantages.

Overall, one could conclude that clear EU norms on gender equality are not always taken into account when dealing with part-time work. On the one hand, this may be seen as a mismatch between legislative instruments and coordination instruments, where each tool has a different focus, with, at times, conflicting goals. On the other hand, part-time work is often a form of employment that is assessed in different ways in different national contexts, having both positive and negative characteristics. Depending on the country and its labour market situation, priorities might differ for legitimate reasons. However, viewing the gendered character of part-time employment, concerns on equal opportunities deserve a higher priority when assessing part-time employment in European labour markets.


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