Two years ago at Sports Direct’s infamous warehouse in Derbyshire, where working conditions have been described as ‘Victorian’ a woman gave birth in a toilet at work. That this is something that actually happens in a modern and democratic country shows just the sort of workplace struggles pregnant women still face in the UK.
But it’s only one of the more gruesome incidents of pregnancy discrimination in the UK – expectant mothers are facing redundancy, bullying and all manner of abuse in record numbers.
The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) last week said that women coming to the charity for advice after being sacked, put on a zero-hour contract or having their hours cut when they had become pregnant has skyrocketed by 25 per cent in the last year alone.
Their findings dovetail with an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reportfrom March which found that an astounding three-quarters of all pregnant women have experienced discrimination at work, with one in nine losing their job as a result.
In response to the shocking level of discrimination mothers-to-be face in work, Unite has teamed up with Maternity Action and other trade unions and charities in its latest campaign, #MothersWork, which aims to push the government to put an end to pregnancy discrimination.
Campaigners including Unite members have shared harrowing tales of their own experience with discrimination.
Lorraine from Stratford recounted how her boss was “annoyed” that she’d become pregnant while she was covering for someone else on maternity leave.
She continued working until she herself was due to go on maternity leave. But after only eight weeks she began experiencing severe abdominal pain – she was eventually told by doctors that she was in the process of miscarrying and was sent home to rest.
“I fully miscarried three days later; it was painful and horrific,” she said. “I took a week off work in total – I didn’t really want to go back straight away but I knew they were struggling to cover me.
But instead of being supported as she returned to work, her boss had other ideas.
“I went to punch in my time card, only to notice that it wasn’t the same card I’d been using in the weeks before,” Lorraine said. “It was a different card and it had been doctored so that shifts I had worked had been removed. I went and asked the shift manager what was going on, she looked uncomfortable and told me to talk to the boss.
“I went to see the boss and asked why shifts had been removed from my time card,” she explained. “He told me I had had too much time off for the miscarriage and my wages were being docked.
“He got right in my face and told me not to bother complaining because the only proof of what hours I had worked was my time card and the wage docking was company policy. I was reasonably young – only just 20 – and still very upset from the miscarriage so I didn’t pursue it. I left soon after.
Stories like Lorraine’s are shockingly common, but what’s at the root of the problem?
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean says pregnancy discrimination is a complex issue – solutions are achievable but the reasons discrimination is so rampant are many.
Chief among these, she explains, is employment tribunal fees. These were introduced in 2013 under the coalition government to combat frivolous claims – but the result has been to block access to justice for working people who don’t have the means to pay.
“Employment tribunal fees have led to a big fall in applications on pregnancy discrimination and is an access to justice issue,” she said.
Endean also pointed to the coalition government abolishing the questionnaire procedure, which 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.
“The questionnaire procedure was a very important aspect in helping women facing pregnancy discrimination,” she said. “The government has abolished it under the guise of ‘cutting red-tape’ but, like so many of their policies, it’s an underhanded way of denying justice to working people.”
Endean gave evidence on behalf of Unite to the equality select committee in Parliament in April, in which she detailed other measures that must be taken to end pregnancy discrimination once and for all.
One worrying development has been the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) being pummelled by government cuts, most recently to the tune of 30 per cent, which may lead to compulsory redundancies.
“The EHRC, as an independent body that helps enforce equality laws, is absolutely instrumental in tackling discrimination of all sorts, including pregnancy discrimination,” Endean noted. “But the massive scale of the cuts the Commission is facing will severely hamper their ability to their job.”
Endean wrote to the chair of the Women and Equalities select committee Maria Miller MP to warn the impact these cuts and the implementation of a new operating model will have.
“It is difficult for us to see how the Commission can implement a new Operating Model and fulfil its functions effectively on £16.8m year when the government concluded in 2012 that it needed £30m a year,” she wrote.
“In practice these changes proposed amount to be the effective closure of the Commission as an independent non-departmental public body, unable to challenge government and other public and private sector bodies.
Endean pointed to the closure of Commission satellite offices among other measures that, she argued, will force the Commission to “lose its connection to what is happening at the grassroots becoming a remote, inaccessible think tank”.
Endean said that tackling workplace discrimination will require, too, a concerted effort to educate both employers and workers about their rights.
“Health visitors would be good people to distribute people to distribute pregnancy discrimination employment rights to women but the cuts to local authorities and health visitor services makes this difficult,” she pointed out.
“Generic health and safety risk assessments backed by individual conversations with women are also key,” Endean noted.
But above all, stronger trade unions in the workplace will ultimately be the best way to make pregnancy discrimination a thing of the past.
“We need to support collective bargaining with employers,” Endean said. “Where we have a good relationship with employers, there is hardly any pregnancy discrimination.”
Workplace equality reps, too, should have statutory rights – at the moment, they aren’t legally entitled to time off for trade union duties the way that, for example, shop stewards and learning reps are.
“Equality reps are especially trained in pregnancy employment rights,” Endean explained. “They also help negotiate agreements for maternity pay, for example.”
“Many forward-thinking employers – Barclays is a good example – voluntarily recognise equality reps on the same level as full shop stewards,” she said. “We need this in every workplace if we are to make any substantive in-roads in helping pregnant women as they navigate a world of work that’s horrifically stacked against them.
Find out more about the #MothersWork campaign here.