Maternity leave: time for action on unfair redundancies
Research published this week shows that 1 in 7 women are made redundant during their maternity leave, while 40% of those polled say their jobs had changed when they returned to work. In this week's guest blog, Rosalind Bragg, Director of Maternity Action, explains that this form of discrimination has been an issue for women for a number of years - and will only get worse, as pursuing claims against employers becomes more difficult.
Research showing that one in seven mothers lost their jobs during maternity leave was no surprise to any of us at Maternity Action. If anything, we were surprised that the figure wasn’t higher. In the last few years, we have seen ever increasing numbers of pregnant women and new mums seeking our help to sort out problems at work. Unfair selection for redundancy is one of the most common complaints.
It is legal for an employer to make a pregnant woman or new mother redundant if the redundancy is genuine and the process is fairly conducted. But if an employer selects a woman for redundancy because of her pregnancy or because she has taken maternity leave, they have broken the law. A woman who has been unfairly selected for redundancy has a claim for automatic unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. In theory, she can get a sizeable settlement. You can read the details on our website.
These women are easy targets because running a discrimination claim is expensive, time consuming and emotionally draining, and discrimination is hard to prove. On top of this, women have to commence a claim within three months of the event, which is really tough for a new mother. Later this year, women will also face up-front fees of £1200 to take their case to the tribunal.
Unscrupulous employers are well aware of the difficulties women face in pursuing a discrimination claim. Research from 2005 found that only 8% of women who lost their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination took any formal action, such as submitting a grievance. Just 3% took claims to the employment tribunal. Employers know they have a very good chance of getting away with it.
Despite this, many women do pursue claims against their employer and succeed in getting a payout. We don’t know how many women have done this or how much they were paid, and we don’t know precisely what their employers did. It is standard practice for employers to ask for a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement, so most women can’t speak out about their experiences. It is generally only those who have resolved their case in the employment tribunal who are free to talk.
It goes without saying that there is something very wrong going on. It is a fundamental principle of gender equality that women are able to continue working during their childbearing years, if that is what they want to do. That pregnant women and new mothers can be removed from their jobs with such surgical precision is a sign of a dysfunctional system.
We think it is time that Government took action to prevent pregnancy discrimination, rather than leaving it to individual women to deal with it on their own. In 2005, 30 000 women lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy discrimination. The latest research suggests that figure may have doubled. The scale of the problem demands a firm response from government.
Revisiting the 2005 investigation into pregnancy discrimination would be a useful starting point, but documenting the problem is not enough. We need Government to intervene to ensure that employers comply with their legal obligations.
Sorting out bad practice in redundancy is, unfortunately, only part of the challenge. Many women who keep their jobs during maternity leave find that their job has changed on their return, usually for the worse. Poor health and safety protections can leave women to choose between remaining in an unsafe job and unemployment, and there is no effective protection for women who are breastfeeding when they return to work.
Maternity Action is leading on the Valuing Maternity campaign to defend maternity rights and protect maternity services. We have been working to keep pregnancy discrimination on the Government’s agenda and would welcome your support. You can post your stories of poor treatment at work on our website, keep up to date on the Children and Family Bill which is currently in Parliament, or just sign up for the email updates.
Maternity Action provides online information and telephone advice on maternity rights and benefits.
Do these figures surprise you? Or have you experienced discrimination or redundancy as a result of your pregnancy? Share your stories and blog posts on the Talk thread.