In November, FIFA announced that its Stakeholders Committee (the “FSC”) had approved reforms aimed at strengthening employment rights for female players. These reforms offer necessary protections, such as guaranteed maternity leave, to all female football players playing for a club that is regulated by FIFA. At this stage the changes are only ‘proposed’, but they are expected to be approved by the FIFA Council this month.

What are the key changes?

The new measures are set out in FIFA’s guide titled “Women’s Football: Minimum Labour Conditions For Players”.  The key provisions include:

  • Mandatory maternity leave of at least 14 weeks, at a minimum of two thirds of the player’s contracted salary
  • On their return to work, clubs must reintegrate female players and provide adequate medical and physical support
  • No female player should ever suffer a disadvantage as a result of becoming pregnant, thus securing greater employment protection for women in football

Although some countries may already offer more statutory maternity leave than the mandatory 14 weeks proposed by FIFA, (e.g. in the UK, eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave with ratchet provisions in respect of salary entitlement), other countries offer little or no statutory protection.

Reintegration is also a big issue for female footballers (in the same way as for any other mode of employment) and has been a recent topic of discussion following US superstar Alex Morgan’s return to the professional game just five months after giving birth.

If these measures are introduced, any club which acts in breach of the regulations could face an employment-related claim before the FIFA Players’ Status Committee or the Dispute Resolution Chamber which could result in an order for compensation to be paid to the affected player, a possible fine and even sporting sanctions (i.e. a ban on registering new players for a specified period of time).

Why now?

One factor responsible for bringing this issue to the fore is the rapid growth of women’s football over the past 10 years. For too long women’s football was viewed as a cost to the football industry as a whole, but its financial viability and its benefit to society as a whole is now properly recognised. FIFPro’s 2020 Raising Our Game Report published earlier this year pointed to greater commercial interest in the sport (a reported 1.12 billion viewers tuned in to watch the Women’s World Cup last year) and increased professionalization, with a rise in the number of new or re-formed professional competitions and clubs. While some countries, like the USA, have a longstanding history of professional women’s football, others are now driving forward. For example, in November the first ever Saudi Arabian women’s league kicked off with a prize fund of SAR 500,000 to play for.

In England, it was only in 2017 that the FA switched the women’s calendar from a summer to a winter schedule to match the men’s calendar, and only in 2018 that the Women’s Super League became a fully professional league. All this positive change has come in the face of great adversity for the women’s game, after the historic disenfranchisement of female footballers in England at every level for 50 years between 1921-1971.

In addition to the worldwide development of the women’s game, the global pandemic has also cast a spotlight on the need to offer basic employment protection to women. A FIFPro report on the impact of COVID-19 has described the current global health crisis as presenting “an almost existential threat to the women’s game”. The key factors that put women’s football at risk include “its less established professional leagues, low salaries, narrower scope of opportunities, uneven sponsorship deals and less corporate investment” which results in a “lack of written contracts, short-term duration of employment contracts, lack of health insurance and medical coverage, and [an] absence of basic worker protections and worker’s rights”.

Final comment  

FIFA has once again demonstrated its capacity to bring positive change through football. Although some may feel that FIFA could and should go further with these reforms, this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The growth of the women’s game, at grass roots through to the professional level, has been an inevitability for some time now and we are continuing to see the positive change that comes along with its expansion.