MPs of the Women and Equalities Committee are calling for greater protection for expectant and new mothers in the workplace after a report found a significant increase in pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The MPs demand urgent action, calling on the Government to publish an ambitious, detailed plan within the next two years to prevent a further rise in workplace discrimination.
Recommendations from the report include changes to health and safety practices, preventing discriminatory redundancies and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers.
The committee recognised "the important role that tribunals play in enabling individuals to seek redress, in holding employers to account, and as a wider deterrent" and called on the government to lift 'unfair barriers to justice' and ease the burden of enforcement on women. Witnesses argued that the three month time limit on pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases did not recognise the pressures on expectant mothers and the report recommends that the time limit is extended to six months. The Committee also recommends a substantial reduction in tribunal fees for discrimination cases, which currently stands at £1,200.
As a reminder of the current legal position, new and expectant mothers in the workplace are afforded the following key protections and entitlements:
- protection from dismissal, detriment or discrimination by reason of pregnancy or maternity;
- paid time off for antenatal care, up to 12 months' maternity leave, the option to replace some maternity leave with shared parental leave and statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance; and
- employees who return after 26 weeks' maternity leave or less are entitled to return to the same job and on the same terms as before her absence, while those who return after 26 weeks are entitled to work to return to the same job or, where that is not practicable, to a suitable alternative role where one is available.
To ensure increased protection from redundancy, the report recommends implementation of a system similar to that used in Germany under which expectant and new mothers can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. In Germany, from the beginning of pregnancy until four months following childbirth, employers can only dismiss an employee in very rare cases - such as the company going bust - and it needs government approval to do so. Yet, in the UK, although it is unlawful to dismiss a woman for reasons relating to having a child, an employer can use other reasons for terminating her employment, such as redundancy.
The report recommends that this protection should apply throughout pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months afterwards (an extension from the 4 months under the German system). The report considered that the defined exceptions could include factor such as "severe financial difficulty for the employer, leading to multiple redundancies, and gross misconduct by the individual". The Government should implement this change within the next two years, the report recommended.
We will soon see how serious the government is about addressing these concerns; the committee has recommended that given the uncertainty about what Brexit will mean, a statement of the Government's intention to ensure that rights and protections are not eroded would provide welcome reassurance during this period of transition.
This article was drafted with considerable assistance from Muhummed Cassidy on a work experience placement at Farrer & Co through the Leonard Cheshire Change 100 Programme.