A woman signing out on maternity leave

As seen on BBC breakfast this morning, a parliamentary report published this week has concluded that urgent action is needed to give pregnant women and new mothers more protection at work.

The Women and Equalities Committee has suggested that copying the German system of employment protection could be the answer.  That would mean that a pregnant employee could not be dismissed during her pregnancy and until four months after the childbirth. The only exception being where the employer has managed to obtain prior consent from the public authorities which in practice would only be granted in exceptional circumstances for example, where the entire business is to be shutdown.

The proposals have been triggered following statistics that show that the number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their job because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination has doubled over the past decade to 54,000. At the same time it has also been reported that more than one in 10 (11%) of pregnant women and new mothers considered that they were dismissed, singled out for compulsory redundancy or forced out of their job by poor treatment. It is described as a ‘shocking’ increase in discrimination.

Are new statutory rights required given that there are already numerous protections in place? For example:

  • Dismissal for pregnancy or maternity reasons is automatically unfair. There is no qualifying period of service required to claim unfair dismissal on this ground.
  • Pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace is also unlawful. Again there is no qualifying service required.
  • A claim for discrimination could be brought by the employee in respect of unfavourable treatment during the ‘protected period’ which runs from the beginning of pregnancy to the end of her maternity leave. This protection extends to job applicants too.
  • An employee on maternity leave who has been made redundant has the right to be offered any suitable alternative employment. She will therefore be given preference over any other redundant employees even if they might be better qualified for the alternative post.

So what is preventing employees from exercising these rights?

It might be that awareness of the existence of these rights is an issue. However the Committee’s report also recognises that there may be more obvious reasons – finances and time.

Just the fees for bringing a claim of discrimination in the Employment Tribunal would set back the employee a sum of £1,200 that is without taking into account the cost of any legal advice. Then there is also the time limit – three months to bring a claim at a time when the employee is expecting or has recently had a baby. The recommendations are for a ‘substantial’ reduction to the Tribunal fees for bringing a discrimination claim and for the three-month limit to bring a claim to be doubled to six months. If acted upon these are procedural changes that could have much more impact than any change in the actual discrimination laws.

This post was edited by Christopher Davies. For more information, email blogs@gateleyplc.com.

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This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.