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Maternity Rights: Before the Birth

This article will focus on the rights of a pregnant woman in the workplace. Most working women have certain rights when they become pregnant.

Although most maternity rights are available only to employees, protection from discrimination covers a wider range of workers from the day they start work. Maternity rights can be statutory or contained in a woman's contract of employment. Usually, contractual maternity rights are more generous than statutory rights. The European Court of Justice has held that a woman who is undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatment is not pregnant if her eggs have been fertilised but not yet implanted.

A job applicant will need to consider whether or not to tell a prospective employer that she is pregnant. Legally, she does not have to tell a prospective employer that she is pregnant until she gives notice for maternity leave and pay in the 15th week before the baby is due. An employer who is aware that a job applicant is pregnant and who rejects her job application for that reason will automatically be found to have discriminated against her on the grounds of direct sex discrimination, unless the employer can prove that their reasons for not giving the woman the job had nothing to do with the fact that she was pregnant or that she might be expected to take maternity leave soon after starting work.

All women employees who are pregnant are entitled to reasonable time off for ante-natal care. Ante-natal care can include relaxation classes and parentcraft classes. The employer cannot unreasonably refuse such time off and must pay her normal earnings. This is a statutory right. It does not matter how long she has been working for the employer, or whether she works full time or part time. The employer cannot insist that the woman makes up the time she has off. In the case of a part-time employee, it may be reasonable for an employer to refuse time off during working hours. Each case should be looked at individually taking into account, for example, the woman's working hours and the availability of appointments. There is no legal right for fathers to have time off to accompany their partners to antenatal appointments but the contract of employment may allow them to take time off for this reason.

If an employer refuses to allow a woman time off work for antenatal care or to pay her for the time off, she has the right to make a claim at an industrial tribunal. She may need to raise a grievance with her employer first. The claim must be made within three months of the date of the appointment for which time off and/or payment was refused. A refusal to allow a woman time off work for antenatal care or to pay her for the time off would also be sex discrimination.

All women employees who are pregnant are entitled to work in a safe environment which does not jeopardise them or their pregnancy. Where an employer employs women of childbearing age, the employer must include in the general assessment of health and safety risks in the workplace, a specific assessment of risks that might be posed to the health and safety of a woman who is pregnant, breastfeeding or who has given birth within the previous six months. Where this assessment shows that there is a risk, and a woman who is pregnant, breastfeeding or who has given birth within the last six months is exposed to that risk, the employer must consider taking action that would protect the women from risk; or if this is not possible, offer the woman a suitable alternative job; or if this is not possible, suspend the woman on full pay.

All women employees are protected from suffering a detriment for any pregnancy related reason, from unfair dismissal, and from sex discrimination.

Further information on the full range of maternity rights is available from your local CAB. Guidance on maternity rights can be found on www.nidirect.gov.uk if you are an employee or worker and www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk if you are an employer.

Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice