Probe launched into treatment of pregnant women in the workplace
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is to investigate the treatment of pregnant women and mothers in workplaces on the back of thousands of complaints.
A spokeswoman for the commission told the Belfast Telegraph over the last five years, it has received 3,772 enquiries about sex discrimination.
Of this total some 770 cases have been pregnancy or maternity-related.
Some of the cases were resolved at an early stage, while others required assistance in going to tribunal or court.
Chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said an investigation was now warranted.
"The investigation will consider the employment experiences of pregnant women and mothers returning to work and identify any barriers to equal treatment," he explained.
"It will also report on examples of good practice by employers which provide pregnant women and mothers with equality of opportunity in the workplace."
On the cost to the public purse, Eileen Lavery, head of legal and advice and compliance, said the internal investigation would be cost-effective.
"The investigation will not be overly-expensive," she said.
"Primarily the conduct of the investigation will be by our own officers, so there will not be many additional costs in that respect. The commission aims to speak to both pregnant women and employers and we will use our own staff to carry out those conversations.
"The outcome of the investigation will be improved advice and support for employers and also improved support for women to access their rights."
The most common cause of complaint to the Equality Commission on grounds of gender is from women who feel they have been treated unfairly either when they became pregnant or on their return to work after maternity leave.
"It is important that all employers are aware of the laws governing pregnancy and maternity rights in the workplace," Dr Wardlow added. "We do extensive work providing advice and guidance on these issues and find that most employers want to know what the law requires and want to make sure they are providing fair treatment and equality of opportunity for all their workers.
"This investigation will provide us with a wider perspective and a greater depth of knowledge of the issues facing women in the Northern Ireland workplace today.
"How we accommodate and support the needs of pregnant women and mothers in the workplace is a crucial test of our willingness as a society to enable women - who make up almost 50% of the workforce - to participate in it fully and without disadvantage."
Lyn McBriar and Anna Carragher will carry out the year-long investigation into the matter.
It begins on January 19 with the first in a series of focus groups hearing from women who are or were in employment during all or part of their pregnancy, within the last five years.
Employers will also be invited to participate in round-table discussions.
Women with children under the age of five are also being encouraged to complete an online survey as part of the investigation.
At this stage a full report by the commissioners is expected to be published in 2016.
For more information visit the Equality Commission website www.equalityni.org.
ECNI will be conducting an investigation under Article 54(1) (a) and (b) of the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 into the workplace experiences of women following pregnancy and the experiences of employers in managing pregnancy and maternity leave, and returning mothers.
Lyn McBriar and Anna Carragher are the Investigating Commissioners.