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Match words with action

Unite: stop cuts to end maternity discrimination
Hajera Blagg, Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Despite rights for pregnant women being enshrined in law, a shocking number of new and expecting mothers experience workplace discrimination, including being illegally sacked – and the problem is only getting exponentially worse.


A new report published by the women and equalities select committee today (August 31) highlighted that 54,000 women lose their jobs each and every year for being pregnant – a number that’s doubled over the last decade.


Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) showed that an astounding 77 per cent of new or pregnant mothers had experienced some form of workplace discrimination, compared to only 45 per cent 10 years ago.


Action call

The committee slammed the government for not taking robust action to tackle the problem and demanded a “detailed plan outlining the specific actions it will take to tackle this unacceptable level of discrimination”.


“This work must be underpinned by concrete targets and changes to laws and protections to increase compliance by employers to improve women’s lives,” noted committee chair Maria Miller.


Pointing to the fact that there are now record numbers of women in work in the UK, Miller argued that “the economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums.”


Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean gave evidence to the committee and noted that a change in legislation is urgently needed to ensure more women aren’t illegally sacked.


“We  find  it  is  very  rare  that  people  say,  ‘I  am  sacking  you  because  you  are  pregnant’, because obviously people know that is unlawful,” Endean noted as part of her evidence.


“What will happen is  that  you  will  be  made  redundant  while  you  are  pregnant  or  on  maternity  leave. If you strengthened the framework of legislation around redundancies, fewer women would fall through that net.”


Endean suggested that the law can be strengthened in various ways, including by reintroducing the questionnaire procedure, which previously allowed workers who had been discriminated against to gather information from their employer before a tribunal hearing.


Claimants could ask questions of their employer to help prove their claim – and bosses could be penalised for failing to answer or for being evasive.


She also argued that extending equality auditing and equality impact assessments — which are required in the public sector – to the private sector would “help employers to uncover and tackle unconscious bias and discrimination.”


The committee issued a series of recommendations in their report including extending the rights to paid time off for antenatal care to casual, agency and zero hours workers; allowing those who’ve been discriminated against six months, instead of three, to launch a discrimination case against their bosses; and cutting the cost of employment tribunal fees, among other recommendations.


Barriers to justice

Unite has argued that the government must go further, and should put an end to employment tribunal fees altogether.


Maternity Action, a campaign group aiming to tackle maternity discrimination with the support of trade unions, including Unite, has also called for an end to employment tribunal fees.


“Employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 make justice unaffordable for most women,” noted Maternity Action chair Jo Swinson. “We need to remove financial barriers to accessing justice if we want women to exercise their rights.”


One such woman who has been hit by exorbitant tribunal fees, Janet, recalled being made redundant when she returned to work from maternity leave, after which she was offered a completely different job and then met with a hostile work environment when she filed a grievance.


“At this point my health had suffered so much with everything that happened since my return to work,” Janet noted. “I was put on anti-depressants. In three weeks I lost ten pounds in weight. I decided to hand in my notice. My notice was accepted by email within 10 minutes of me handing in the letter. They had got what they finally wanted.”


After filing a tribunal claim, Janet noted that she had to pay for the tribunal fee on her credit card, money which she said, “I can ill afford to lose.”


Pivotal role

While Endean welcomed the committee’s report, she warned that “the ability of the government to implement many of the committee’s recommendations will be hampered by deep cuts to the EHRC rendering the commission toothless in the face of bad bosses.”


As UNITElive reported earlier this year, upcoming government cuts could slash the EHRC’s budget by 30 per cent and could potentially lead to many redundancies.


“If government ministers are serious about tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination then their warm words need to be matched by action,” Endean argued.


“Ministers need to recognise that the EHRC has a pivotal role in investigating employers who flout the law and reconsider the disastrous introduction of employment tribunal fees, which have restricted access to justice for so many women suffering discrimination.


“The government needs to go further and faster than the committee’s report in tackling the shocking ease with which employers can make pregnant women redundant,” she added.


“It needs to tackle the abuses faced by many pregnant agency and zero hours contracts workers who can be put out of work because of the lack of workplace protections.


“A failure to do so will do little to breach the stubborn gender pay gap or smash the glass ceiling which stops many women fulfilling their potential in the world of work.”


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