Paid leave – its origins and how it varies across the globe

September 27, 2021

With one exception, all major countries provide employees with statutory annual leave, with that exception being the United States. Below we compare the kind of annual leave you can expect from different countries, but first, we’ll take a brief look at how paid annual leave came about. We didn’t always have it as good as we do now.

Today we recognise the importance of leave in maintaining employee physical and mental health. Every employer must ensure that their employees take their leave entitlement, and a reliable holiday leave planner is an essential tool in every HR department. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the “olden days”, if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. Moreover, there was no such concept as a family holiday, at least amongst the working classes. Only the rich and entitled spent their summers enjoying leisure time with friends and family. Ordinary folk only began taking summer holidays in the second third of the twentieth century, a time that coincided with the birth of the holiday camp phenomenon in the UK and the August holiday exodus across Europe.

The origins of paid leave

Paid leave is a relatively recent phenomenon, origins in mid-19th century Germany, though it didn’t catch on. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik government introduced paid leave to workers, but only to those the party leaders considered worthy of receiving it. About the same time, the Spanish government granted paid leave to civil servants, teachers and those serving in the armed forces. Annual leave entitlement varied from 15 days to a month. However, this didn’t apply to other workers who felt increasingly dissatisfied with the situation.

Austria, Italy, Sweden, and Finland introduced leave for all workers in the 1920s and in 1931, Spain passed a law to give all salaried workers seven days a year paid leave. But, unfortunately, this didn’t apply to agricultural workers, who made up the majority of the Spanish workforce.

In France, a landslide victory for the Popular front and widespread strikes and factory occupations resulted in the introduction of the 40 hour week, higher wages and two weeks paid holidays for all workers. In 1956 this was increased to four weeks and in 1968 to five weeks.

In the UK, the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 gave many workers the right to one week paid holiday a year following a campaign by the TUC that began in 1911. However, the TUC was disappointed that the government had failed to grant the whole two weeks leave the TUC had campaigned for.

Minimum annual leave across the globe

There is a massive difference in the annual leave entitlement amongst different countries. For example, we have already mentioned that there is no annual leave entitlement in the United States, while at the other end of the scale, Iran provides workers with a total paid leave of 53 days, made up of 27 paid public holidays and 26 paid leave days. Kuwait is not far behind with 48 days, and Andorra, Cambodia, and Burkina Faso provide 45 leave days.

In Europe, Austria and Malta are the most generous, each granting 38 days. However, the most complex system is in Luxembourg, where leave entitlement varies from 37 to 47 days, depending on your employment sector and age. Denmark, Finland and France provide 36 days, Norway 35, Sweden 34, Spain 33, Greece and Italy 32, Germany and Belgium 30. The UK does relatively poorly, providing just 28 days, 8 of which are bank holidays and 20 statutory leave.

Although we have indicated that Iran tops the annual leave league table, if you live in the Far Northern Territories of Russia, you are entitled to a world-beating 66 days annual leave. Given the harsh winters, barren lands and permafrost, just seven per cent of the population live there, no doubt permanently glued to their annual leave planner looking forward to a breakaway in warmer climes.

You can see these and other country leave entitlements in the chart below.

For businesses that operate in multiple regions, the different holiday entitlements across the globe need to be handled with care. A holiday tracker and online annual leave planner are excellent tools for managing these difficulties and ensuring that all employees receive at least the statuary paid leave to which they are entitled.