"The laws are good, but it takes for example some 80 pages of paperwork to claim maternity benefits in Serbia," stated Violeta Jovanović, the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Local Economic Development in Serbia at a recent World Bank Group regional conference on Investing in Women's Employment in the Western Balkans.
The conference, which brought together over 70 participants from all of the seven Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia), called for stronger synergies between the public and private sector to create more and better jobs for women in the region.
The economic case for bringing more women into the workforce has long been established, as Tony Verheijen, World Bank Group's Country Manager for Serbia pointed out in his opening remarks: "Investing in women's employment not only creates economic opportunities for the individual, but is also essential for economic growth overall."
In a region where only half of the working age population is currently participating in the labor market, and where women are concentrated in a few low-productivity sectors doing low-skill and low-pay work, addressing women's employment is crucial for stimulating economic growth. Indeed, investing in women's employment can help economies tap into larger human resource and talent pools, and thus contribute to more productive, competitive, and faster growing markets.
Yet, the barriers to women's employment are numerous and complex, comprising social, cultural and institutional factors. "Overall, the legal framework in the region is better than in many other places of the world; all seven countries have laws that ensure non-discrimination in the hiring process, and penalize the dismissal of pregnant women," explained Yasmin Bin Humam from the World Bank Group's Women, Business and the Law department. "However, not all countries mandate that employers give mothers an equivalent position after they return from maternity leave. Also, only a few have legal mandates for parental leave and provide tax deductions for childcare. So, a lot remains to be done in terms of improving labor laws to assist working women."
"Investing in women's employment not only creates economic opportunities for the individual, but is also essential for economic growth overall."
According to findings of a recent report by the World Bank Group, part-time workers in some European and Central Asian countries are, for example, charged the same amount of income tax as full-time workers. This presents a major disincentive for pursuing part-time employment, which is a flexible work arrangement sought out predominantly by women. In addition to labor legislation constraints, excessive bureaucratic processes for claiming benefits present additional barriers to work.
"While the issues are pressing, not all solutions can be provided by the government alone. We are more and more looking at ways to incentivize and support the private sector in addressing barriers and providing solutions," explained Mirdita Saliu, head of the Sector for Equal Opportunities at the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy in Macedonia. For example, there have been talks about giving tax breaks to companies who support women returning to work or who support flex-work. Keeping jobs open for women who are away on legally mandated maternity leave can be costly and can discourage firms from the outset from employing women. Such tax breaks could help offset that perceived cost. For policy makers, there is a real opportunity at hand to use available policy and regulatory instruments in order to support the private sector in providing solutions to the barriers that women face in private sector employment.
The conference concluded that these types of dialogues and partnerships between the public and private sector are critical in improving access and incentives to work in the region.
Updated June 2014