Belfast Telegraph

'Shocking' rise in mums forced to quit work

By Rachel Penny

A new report by MPs suggests there has been a "shocking" increase in discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers and has led to calls for an urgent increase in protection for women.

The Commons Women and Equalities Committee claimed the number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination, or concerns about the safety of their child, has doubled in the past decade to 54,000.

Its figures suggest more than one in 10 pregnant women and new mothers were either dismissed, singled out for compulsory redundancy or left their job because of poor treatment in the workplace.

The report is somewhat surprising, as maternity and pregnancy is already one of the most regulated and protected areas of employment law. For example, all pregnant employees have the right to paid time off for ante natal appointments, the right to up to a year off work and automatic protection from unfair dismissal.

It is discrimination to not give a woman a promotion or reduce pay because she is pregnant or has recently given birth. New mothers also continue to receive work benefits during maternity leave and when they return to work, they have the right to go back to the same job or a similar job, subject to some limited exceptions.

The reason for such a high level of protection links directly to the UK government's economic policy. Given our ageing populating, more than ever the economy needs women both to have babies and to return to work after having children, so the law acts as a "big stick" to ensure women are given the best possible chance to re-enter the workforce.

But the findings of the Women and Equalities Committee report strongly indicate the current laws aren't working, leading to calls for a German-style system, which would make it very hard for employers to dismiss women during and after pregnancy.

It found hefty tribunal fees of up to £1,200 prevent a lot of women from issuing claims against their employer - particularly if they have just spent six or nine months on low paid statutory maternity pay. Finding money to meet fees may well be an insurmountable barrier for many of those women.

While maternity discrimination does of course happen in Northern Ireland, the landscape is better for claimants - we don't have tribunal fees here and it is still "free" to issue a claim.

Across the UK, it is unlawful to dismiss a woman for reasons relating to having a child, but there is leeway to make people redundant for other legitimate reasons at that time.

In Germany, employers can only dismiss women in certain circumstances, such as their company going bust - and they need government approval to do it. The implications of moving to a German system need careful analysis.

From the employers' point of view, further regulation will not be welcomed. The recommendation to extend the right for paid time off to attend antenatal appointments to casual, agency and zero-hours workers will be seen as yet another unwanted cost.

That may seem harsh, but it's important to remember the duration of statutory maternity leave has increased dramatically in the last 15 years, from a maximum of 18 weeks in the year 2000 to 52 weeks as we stand today.

It is very hard for some employers to keep a job open for a year and while most accept the law and look after their employees, a balance must be struck, as further tightening of an already highly regulated area of employment law could simply serve to increase costs and complexity, at a time when businesses could do without it.

Rachel Penny is Employment Law Partner at Carson McDowell

Belfast Telegraph