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Gig workers, freelancers fear changes to maternity benefit rules

From 2020 income during pregnancy will determine an expectant mother’s maternity allowance.

Vauvan vaippaa vaihdetaan.
Image: AOP

A women’s NGO has expressed concern about new rules for calculating maternity allowances that will take effect from the beginning of next year.

Starting 1 January, expectant mothers’ maternity benefit will be based on their income in the 12 months before they go off on maternity leave. In practice this means that income earned during pregnancy will have more of an impact on the benefit.

The objective of the reform is to better reflect an expectant mother’s real income level and to simplify the per diem allowance system that many see as unclear.

Gig workers face constant financial insecurity

While the new system may achieve that goal, others are concerned about the impact the reform may have on maternity benefits for gig workers.

Tampere resident Maaria Kiemola raised the issue in an opinion piece in daily Helsingin Sanomat, where she charged that society does not understand the constant financial insecurity that gig workers live with.

In the gig economy where employers are not committed to employees, many young women may find that employers will not renew their fixed-term contracts when news of their pregnancy gets out.

Under the new system, period of unemployment will likely affect the size of a woman’s maternity benefit more than they did in the past.

Pregnancy discrimination widespread

Annica Moore, chair of the NGO Mothers in Business, said that while the reform is positive in many ways, it also carries many risks.

"The reform serves the large segment of the population with permanent jobs. At the same time, however, it ignores a significant number of young women who are in fixed-term of part-time work. They may become unemployed because of discrimination during the pregnancy," she pointed out.

More than 20 percent of women in a Mothers in Business survey said that they had experienced discrimination related to pregnancy or parental leave.

According to the Ombudsman for Equality, pregnancy discrimination is still widespread in the Finnish labour market.

Moore noted that lone entrepreneurs and freelancers would also find themselves in choppy waters as maternity benefits will increasingly be determined by work done during pregnancy. In situations where a woman is experiencing a difficult pregnancy and cannot work as much or at all, the allowance could be much smaller than she would otherwise expect.

Reassurances from ministry

In spite of these concerns the Social Affairs and Health Ministry said that other improvements to daily allowances will level out the effect of possible stints of unemployment that gig workers might face.

In the future, daily allowances will take account of a self-employed person’s income declaration for the purpose of statutory pension payments, as well as other benefits such as unemployment benefits or student financial aid.

"This was discussed during the preparatory phase but we thought that factoring in other benefits would compensate for fixed-term workers’ possible unemployment periods," ministerial adviser Eva Ojala said.

Another change is that irregular income will also be taken into consideration when maternity benefits are calculated. According to Ojala it will encourage mothers-to-be to accept even brief positions as the income will help boost their maternity allowance.

In evaluating the impact of the reform, ministry officials estimated that 70 percent of the changes introduced would be minimal. Expectant mothers in low-income groups will see their maternity benefit rise, while there might be a small decline for women in higher-income groups.

"We will constantly monitor what happens with different income groups and whether any marginalised groups are created," Ojala concluded.

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