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Europe — Court of Justice ruling in favour of workers on parental leave

23 October 2009

The Court of Justice of the European Communities in Luxembourg has ruled that an employer who sacks a worker while they are on parental leave must base the severance pay on the worker's full-time salary, rather than on what they were earning while on leave. The judgement has potentially ramifications for businesses across the EU, since it sets a precedent for similar cases anywhere in the bloc.

The case began when a Belgian woman, Ms. Christel Meerts, working half-time so that she could take care of her child, was dismissed with immediate effect just nine days before she was due to go back to full-time work. The company paid her compensation equal to 10 months' salary, but based the total on the woman's part-time pay, which had been reduced by half to reflect the fact that she was working half time. She challenged this before the arbeidsrechtbank van Turnhout (Labour Court of Turnhout, Belgium), which in turn referred the case to the European court.

The Luxembourg judges ruled in favour of the employee, arguing that the severance pay should have been based on her full-time salary. This is because "a reduction in the rights arising from the employment relationship in the event of parental leave could discourage workers from taking parental leave and could encourage employers to prefer to dismiss those workers who are on parental leave." The ruling was based on European rules aimed at discouraging any form of discrimination on the workplace.

NOTE: A reference for a preliminary ruling allows the courts and tribunals of the Member States, in disputes which have been brought before them, to refer questions to the Court of Justice about the interpretation of Community law or the validity of a Community act. The Court of Justice does not decide the dispute itself. It is for the national court or tribunal to dispose of the case in accordance with the Court’s decision, which is similarly binding on other national courts or tribunals before which the same issue is raised.

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