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On top of maternity/paternity pay, my (UK) employer offers "parental leave" to any parent: this is the option to take additional unpaid leave.

Parent's are offered the option to take up to 9 weeks unpaid leave per child. They can take up to 4 weeks from that allowance in any one year. For example, if someone has 2 children, they get an extra 18 weeks of unpaid leave to use. They could take 2 weeks off unpaid every year for 9 years, or 1 week off unpaid for 18 years. The rules state that the parental leave must be used to spend time with the children.

I am not a parent, but I would like the option to take unpaid leave.

Some questions:

  • Is my employer discriminating against non-parents?
  • If so, is this discrimination allowed by UK employment law?
  • Other than by having children, how should I go about getting a similar allowance of unpaid leave?
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    This question is being discussed on meta and has now been reopened. Nice edit, @JoeStrazzere. – Monica Cellio Sep 12 at 21:57
  • I presume this leave is usually taken if a child is off school/childcare for a longer time (chronic illness or simply school holidays). Childcare during holidays is rather expensive in the UK and many people struggle to solve the dilemma of needing two working parents to pay for school/childcare but also need to be able to provide inexpensive care solutions when they are on holiday (without forcing the parents to never have holidays together, because either is off during school holidays to make it work out). Just for context. – skymningen Sep 16 at 15:17
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You asked three questions,

Is my employer discriminating against non-parents? If so, is this discrimination allowed by UK employment law?

Employment law in the UK currently classifies parental leave as a protected right. That is, the law protects the right of parents to take leave. This seems to inherently imply that such leave is not considered discriminatory, and it explicitly answers your second question - this type of leave is certainly allowed by law.

You also asked,

Other than by having children, how should I go about getting a similar allowance of unpaid leave?

Ultimately, that's a question for your employer. They may be happy to allow you to take unpaid leave, although there may not be any inherent protections in terms of you getting to keep your job during or after the leave. It's also worth considering that, in general, conditions which have legal requirements for leave allowances tend to be related to significant life events and/or situations where an employee's time needs to be directed somewhere besides their job - situations like being critically ill, or having a child. Generally, there are no legal requirements for employers to allow you to take leave for whatever reason you want.

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    I do think the most well-rounded answer to this question would list relevant protected leave in a given jurisdiction. I just don't know the UK well enough to do so. But, for instance, in the US, the FMLA would protect your right to take leave to care for sick family members, as an example. Most jurisdictions have similar regulations, which in effect are part of an answer to this question, since it's a way you can get leave without having a child. – dwizum Sep 13 at 12:31
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Are you being discriminated against? Absolutely. Discriminate simply means favoring something for some reason. It generally does have an aspect of lacking fairness, but does not equate to illegal. There’s no way to be totally fair to everyone. And parental rights are such a mixed bag. Some people never have kids while others do. Some who never planned on having kids wind up with them. Any system can be abused, but perhaps the questions left out are more around coming to understand why some discrimination is protected and how to come to terms with that.

Very broadly, there’s no society or human race without parents. That’s not to put them on some heroic pedestal, but as a society, continuation of the species is a priority. Beyond simple existence, children who grow up with involved parents are more likely to be the producers that keep the economy going so you can retire well or be the caregivers when your body doesn’t make life as easy as it once did. All of us depend on a lot of people who weren’t our kids throughout life.

Then comes the unpredictability of life. Yes, some people never have children, but most do—many who didn’t plan it. If you were to get compensatory time off now, would you later not take the time off if you did have children? If not, then that might be considered discriminating against parents who didn’t get that extra time.

There’s also the value to companies. Day-to-day, the childless seem hands down more valuable. They’re more likely to do extra hours and are less likely to be gone early or unexpectedly leave in the middle of the day. But extra hours often tend to come with diminishing returns and burnout and those who have additional responsibilities are less likely in the long-run to leave a job—which also has a lot of value to an employer as well. Keeping the parents dedicated may be more valuable than it seems on first pass.

No perfectly fair solution can exist. But over the course of your life, stressing over whether or not you worked one or two percent more days than others because your life didn’t go down the same path may just cause more difficulty than those weeks of time off might have solved.

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    Glad someone brought up the utilitarian aspects of this question. Very useful answer. – AffableAmbler Sep 13 at 17:13
  • Good commentary on other aspects of the question. – Tico Sep 13 at 18:49
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Is my employer discriminating against non-parents?

Legally speaking no - the enshrining of parental leave in law is primarily there to protect parents from being disadvantaged in the workforce, essentially preventing them being discriminated against. Does it get abused? Yes, I've seen it happen - is the abuse endemic and a huge problem? No, not in my experience and on balance I think it does more good than harm, everything like this gets abused to one extent or another (I'm sure everyone reading this probably at least knows someone who's thrown a sickie when they weren't really sick!)

If so, is this discrimination allowed by UK employment law?

It's not discrimination - being a non-parent isn't a protected group in the UK (and probably not anywhere)

Other than by having children, how should I go about getting a similar allowance of unpaid leave?

The closest direct equivalent is dependents' leave, it functions similarly to parental leave but applies to everybody - the time off is typically unpaid and intended for providing emergency care for a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on you for care. Unlike parental leave it only applies in emergency situations but it does have the advantage of being unbounded - you can take as much time off as is reasonable to deal with the emergency and you can have any number of instances. This is effectively the UK analogue of FMLA in the US and covers off your example scenario of caring for elderly relatives etc.

If the time off isn't for such an emergency or you don't have anyone who would class as a dependent then there isn't such a provision - but that's the same for parents, strictly speaking they can't take random unpaid time off either.

If you need to take additional time off (over and above your annual leave entitlement) then that comes down to individual agreements with your employer, and the responses will be just as varied as you might expect. If you find yourself in a situation where your lifestyle is such that it's a consistent need for you then self-employment is the way to go, you work when you want to work and only get paid for what you do and you can have as much time off as you want, finances allowing (at least that's the theory - speaking as a self employed person I've not actually had any time off outside of weekends and Bank Holidays so far this year!)

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Is my employer discriminating against non-parents?

In the strict, non-legal sense of the term "discriminating", Yes.

If so, is this discrimination allowed by UK employment law?

Yes, this is allowed by UK employment law.

Other than by having children, how should I go about getting a similar allowance of unpaid leave?

You can talk to your employer, indicate how much unpaid leave you would like, and when you would like to take it. You employer can then say Yes, No, or come to some sort of compromise.

Alternatively, you could leave this job and find part-time work, or work as a short-term independent contractor. That way you can have as much unpaid time off as you like.

If you are in a union, you also have the option of bringing your complaint to your union rep and see if they will ask on your behalf.

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