North Wales-based employment law specialist Ian Winrow explains why the UK’s record on maternity discrimination is something we should definitely improve:
Just over a week ago, the UK joined the rest of the world in celebrating International Women’s Day.
While it’s great we are celebrating femininity. I can’t help thinking of all the women I’ve seen at the CAB and in my private practice who are seeking advice on bringing a maternity discrimination claim because their employer has treated them badly or fired them purely for being pregnant. Despite having some excellent laws surrounding how we treat pregnant women, the stats for maternity discrimination in UK workplaces are downright shocking:
- 54000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave
- 77 percent of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work
- 40 percent of employers say they would avoid hiring a woman of childbearing age
- 44 percent of working mums say they earn less than before they had children
I went to check these stats on the charity website, Pregnant then Screwed, and was horrified to see that their latest case studies are dated as recently as March 12. It isn’t so much that they are efficient at updating their site, but that the issue is an everyday occurrence – something UK plc should be ashamed of.
In my work with the Citizens Advice Bureau, maternity discrimination was one of the most common areas of employment law that I advised clients on – it remains so in private practice. However, the sad truth is that employment law solicitors like me only get to see the tip of the iceberg – these are a small number of cases where women feel sufficiently empowered to challenge these blatantly unfair practices – and most of them either win at tribunal or settle out of court.
There are very clear rights for pregnant women at work in the UK – however women may not realise these rights apply from their first day of employment, even if they have joined the firm whilst pregnant and did not tell their employer this at interview. There is no statutory duty to notify your employer, new or existing, until 15 weeks before your due date.
Pregnant employees have 4 main legal rights:
- paid time off for antenatal care
- maternity leave
- maternity pay or maternity allowance
- protection against unfair treatment, discrimination or dismissal
- ‘Antenatal care’ is not just medical appointments – it can also include antenatal or parenting classes if they’ve been recommended by a doctor or midwife.
- Employers cannot change a pregnant employee’s contract terms and conditions without agreement – if they do they are in breach of contract.
- Employers must give pregnant employees time off for antenatal care and pay their normal rate for this time off.
- The father or pregnant woman’s partner has the right to unpaid time off work to go to 2 antenatal appointments.
- heavy lifting or carrying
- standing or sitting for long periods without adequate breaks
- exposure to toxic substances
- long working hours
Where an assessment reveals any risks, the employer is legally bound to take reasonable steps to remove the risk. This could mean offering the employee different work or changing their hours. If the employer feels they cannot make adjustments to remove the risk, then the employer should suspend the employee on full pay.
In practice, adjustments are often simple to make and much appreciated by the employee – yet sadly, these shocking stats show many employers are failing their pregnant employees.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have spent many years advising women who have been unfairly treated by their employers whilst pregnant – and the saddest thing is not that they end up at tribunal, but that nobody really wins. The women have gone through a painful experience followed by having to take the legal route, and the employer loses a valuable, loyal employee who often wanted to return to work. In a talent scarce environment, maternity discrimination is bad for everyone involved.
If any employer or employee needs any advice on maternity discrimination, there are many ways to seek advice.
- Gov.UK has an informative page outlining maternity rights
- ACAS offer free helplines for both employers and employees.
- Pregnant then Screwed have even shared videos – entertaining as well as informative.
- See an employment law specialist like me
Specialist employment lawyers like myself are here to offer advice, support and representation to both employers and employees. In many cases, we can offer FREE legal advice to women who have suffered maternity discrimination – and since the abolition of tribunal fees, it is far easier for women who have suffered maternity discrimination to bring a claim.
What to do if you have suffered maternity discrimination
If this is sounding alarm bells with you (and chances are, with these stats at least one person reading this will be in this position) there are time limits for bringing a claim.
The normal time limit for making your discrimination claim in the employment tribunal is 3 months less one day from the date when the discrimination happened – however, before making your claim you must put in a request to Acas for early conciliation. This will affect the time limit for presenting your claim and my advice is to seek legal advice as soon as possible – call me on 01286 269 226.
There are so many good employers out there, it’s sad to see some still favouring unreasonable employment practices. Maternity discrimination is unnecessary in a modern society.
I don’t only work with employees and I’m happy to support employers. It’s great helping positive employers ensure their employment policies, procedures and practices are visibly fair and compliant – and actually in my experience, the employers I speak to want to get it right, and that’s half the battle. Avoiding maternity discrimination isn’t that difficult with the right support in place – it’s a legal requirement anyway, and I am only a telephone call away.
Ultimately, I’d be happy if I never saw another maternity discrimination claim in my practice – unfortunately, at 54,000 instances a year, that’s some way off. Until then, I will keep working hard to support employers to deliver positive, equal employment practices – and helping women seek justice when businesses fail to protect their employees from maternity discrimination.
About the author
Solicitor Advocate Ian Winrow has more than 15 years experience in Employment Law, and regularly appears in the Employment Tribunal representing both Employee and Employer.
An ex Citizens Advice Bureau solicitor, Ian is also a part-time lecturer at Bangor University’s School of Law where he is module leader for Employment Law on both the LLB and LLM programmes.