Expectant mothers and mothers of young children have never had it worse in the workplace – a wide-ranging Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) study published earlier this year found that the vast majority of working mothers – 77 per cent – have experienced negative treatment at work.
And an astounding 1 in 9 reported losing their jobs or being forced to leave as a result.
But against this dismal backdrop for working mothers who are discriminated against at every turn, Unite yesterday (September 29) secured a landmark victory.
Two Bristol-based cabin crew members, Sara Ambacher and Cynthia McFarlane were breastfeeding their young sons Sydney and Eli when they returned to work and knew they couldn’t express milk during a flight. (Cynthia and Eli are pictured).
They had asked their employer easyJet to limit their duty days to eight hours to allow them to express milk, or conversely, to offer them ground duties, as recommended by their GPs. easyJet refused both requests.
Management’s ultimate solution was to offer the cabin crew members unrestricted duty days of 12 hours – an arrangement that may have increased their risk of mastitis, a condition that results in painful inflammation of the breasts.
Inexplicably, easyJet declined the women’s work eight hour duty days on ‘health and safety’ grounds.
Although in their training literature easyJet recognises breastfeeding as being a ‘globally recognised human right’ where passengers are concerned, their position did not extend to its cabin crew.
With the support of Unite legal services, the cabin crew took the airline to an employment tribunal and won their case, with the judge ruling yesterday (September 30) that the employer’s actions were discriminatory.
The airline disregarded the advice of four GPs; failed to carry out their own risk assessments despite having a dedicated health and safety team and failed to send the women to be assessed by occupational health.
Instead, managers admit to Googling ‘breast feeding risks’ on the internet before coming up with a series of unworkable ‘solutions’ each of which involved Sara and Cynthia suffering a significant detriment.
As the legal case was lodged, easyJet agreed to allow the mothers six months of ground duties but were unwilling to extend beyond this time period, arguing that after the six months, the women continuing to breastfeed was ‘a choice’.
The employment tribunal agreed with Unite that this was discriminatory because by limiting the time period during which they could do ground duties, management was effectively making the choice for them.
Unite legal officer Nicky Marcus hailed the ruling, calling it “a ground-breaking victory which has wider implications for all working women particularly those in atypical workplaces like cabin crew.”
“The days of ‘I’m going back to work so I will have to give up breastfeeding’ are over,” she said. “Unite has tens of thousands of female cabin crew members across the major airlines and we will be working with those airlines to ensure that they adopt policies and practices that reflect this ruling.”
Another Unite victory
Unite executive director of legal services Howard Beckett called the ruling “another victory for Unite legal services”.
“We continue to show we will fight the major battles for our members – industrially, politically and in the courts.”
“This victory comes on the back of the Unite holiday pay case, Unite ensuring members rights are protected in the workplace. Unite would like to thank Thompsons Solicitors for their representation, Thompsons continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our movement.”
This week’s ruling comes just a month after the government announced it would be drawing up plans to encourage employers to help new mothers breastfeed in the workplace.
Business minister Margot James said the government “will continue to make the case for inclusive workplaces, where everyone, mothers as well as fathers, can reach their full potential. This is good news for businesses and the economy as well as individual employees.
“The government encourages breastfeeding and recommends that employers enable women to breastfeed at work as a matter of best practice.”
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean noted that Unite has long been “working hard to ensure women workers have a safe working environment when returning to work after maternity leave.
“It’s very simple for employers to enable women to continue to breastfeed on return to work with short breaks to allow feeding of a baby or a private lockable room to enable women to express breast milk,” she said.
“I am delighted by the outcome of this case and would urge women to join their union and ask their union rep for help with pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work. In most cases, Unite has agreed policies with companies to support new mums.”
Find out more about rights at work for breastfeeding mums here.