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AMONG the most heartbreaking cases of workplace discrimination I have encountered have been those that are pregnancy related. Women who oftentimes come to doubt their ability and self-worth are faced with blatant or disguised discriminatory attitudes and/or actions. Many may not be aware that their experiences are increasingly the norm.
The equality and human rights commission (EHRC) doggedly plugs away producing research and, most recently, a survey that revealed shocking employer attitudes towards pregnant women and new mothers.
The recent timeline on research, inquiries, reports and recommendations starts in 2016 when the EHRC revealed a staggering 77 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers experienced discrimination or negative attitudes during pregnancy, maternity leave and on their return from maternity leave.
When the EHRC 2016 data is scaled up, it amounts to 54,000 women having lost their job, needless sacrifices accounted for by employers’ discrimination. What will dismay many campaigners is that the EHRC 2005 comparable research showed 30,000 women lost their jobs. Put simply, employer discrimination is endemic and getting worse. In fact, the 2016 figures show pregnancy-related discrimination is 80 per cent higher than the previous decade.
Prompted by the EHRC findings, the parliamentary women and equalities select committee set up an inquiry into the issues raised, which duly published their recommendations in January 2017 based on the following observation, “We find it shocking that the number of new and expectant mothers feeling forced out of their job has nearly doubled in the past decade.”
The committee called for better protection throughout pregnancy and maternity leave and six months afterwards. The government responded with the platitude that it was “determined to build an economy for everyone” but did at least commit to review the position in relation to pregnancy-discrimination-related redundancy.
The government needs look no further than to Germany where pregnant women and new mothers can only be made redundant in specific circumstances. There are existing rights in British law. For example, women are entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy, if one exists, if their role is redundant at any time during the maternity leave period and not be forced to compete by assessment or interview.
Women are also entitled to consultation and it is not deemed sex discrimination against a man to provide more favourable treatment to a woman because of pregnancy and maternity leave.
Yet, as any union representatives will confirm, beneath the EHRC data are dreadful cases where women are told their maternity cover “did a better job,” “there is no space for them” and even “the organisation has moved on.” Many courageous women do challenge employers without union support and this can be daunting and expensive.
Even if rights were toughened up, without enforcement and serious penalties for breaches, women are reliant on their employer ‘doing the right thing.’
In February 2018, the EHRC published its survey of 1,106 senior decision makers and here is what it found:
• Six in 10 agreed women should have to disclose if they are pregnant during the recruitment process
• Nearly half agreed that it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children during the recruitment process
• 44 per cent stated a woman should work for an organisation for a year before deciding to have children
No wonder the EHRC commented that “British employers are ‘living in the dark ages’ and have worrying attitudes towards unlawful behaviour when it comes to recruiting women.”
Maternity Action (MA) campaigns against pregnancy-related discrimination, 80,000 legal information sheets are downloaded from its website each month. In a comprehensive and insightful report published in November 2017, MA highlights specific actions needed to drive change. As well as demanding better law, Maternity Action recommends training midwives, support workers and health visitors in maternity rights so they can signpost women to sources of advice and support.
They also propose that better protections, if introduced, be extended to fathers and partners taking paternity leave, shared parental leave and parental leave during the pregnancy and the child’s first year.
The Alliance for Maternity Rights, which includes trade unions and is coordinated by MA, met government officials following the select committee inquiry and the government’s response.
The alliance was told that government is not planning any regulatory changes and asked for “other ideas” to address the problem! So 15 months on and the determination “to build an economy for everyone” seems to have evaporated, at least as far as pregnant and new mothers are concerned.
From next month, employers with over 250 employees are required to publish their gender pay gap. What we can already see from reports is the high price paid by women working part-time and/or shouldering carer responsibilities, the occupational gender segregation with jobs typically ‘women’s work’ being regarded as of lesser value and direct discrimination.
The number of women in the labour market is at an historic high and the Maternity Alliance calls on employers to evaluate retention rates and argues this should be a requirement of gender pay gap reporting.
The costs to women of pregnancy (or perceived pregnancy) related discrimination includes loss of income, reduced career progression and avoidable stress and mental ill health. The state loses tax revenue and pays increased benefits.
The EHRC is inviting employers to join Working Forward and choose two or three “action areas” covering leadership, employee confidence, supporting line managers and flexible working.
Voluntarism is all well and good, however, experience over decades demonstrates that, to end pregnancy-related discrimination, or indeed the gender pay gap, a much tougher approach is needed. The EHRC is the UK equality watchdog yet has seen its funding and staff levels severely reduced and the current political climate favouring deregulation may think twice about exercising its enforcement powers.
I could find no mention of the role of trade unions on the Working Forward website, despite unions rolling back employment tribunal fees that impeded access to justice and saw a dramatic drop in discrimination cases being brought forward.
Labour’s 2016 manifesto stated that, under the Conservatives, maternity discrimination is out of control, a claim based on facts. Labour echoes the MA call for an extension of the time period from three to six months when applying for maternity discrimination to the employment tribunal.
It should not be up to women individually to first overcome discrimination during recruitment, face discrimination when pregnant, during maternity leave or when they return to work and/or the loss of their job.
Prevention is better than cure. In the short term, our demands should include restored funding for the EHRC, an injection of cash called for by charities working to end maternity-related discrimination such as Maternity Alliance and, at the very least, the government introducing legal protection similar, and not less than, what is in place in Germany.
My faith is in a Labour government not only because it has always been Labour that has backed equality law, but because Labour is committed to freedoms for trade unions that will support sectoral collective bargaining, with the potential to genuinely create an economy that works for all. Women deserve no less.
Gail Cartmail is Unite assistant general secretary.
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