'Unacceptable level of discrimination' against pregnant women in workplace


Urgent action is needed to give pregnant women and new mothers more protection at work, after research revealed a "shocking" increase in discrimination over the past 10 years, a parliamentary report has said.

MPs on the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee called for a German-style system which would ban employers from making women redundant during and after pregnancy except in specific exceptional circumstances.

The committee also called for a "substantial" cut in the £1,200 fee for women taking a pregnancy-related discrimination case to an employment tribunal, and said rights to paid time off for antenatal appointments should be extended to casual, agency and zero-hours workers.

The new report cited statistics showing that the number of expectant and new months forced to leave their job because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination has doubled over the past decade to 54,000.

And more than one in 10 (11%) of pregnant women and new mothers reported being dismissed, singled out for compulsory redundancy or forced out of their job by poor treatment, according to research carried out by the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said the report.

The cross-party Committee said the Government's approach had so far lacked "urgency and bite". They urged ministers to publish an "ambitious, detailed plan" within the next two years to improve the working rights of pregnant women and new mothers, warning that without change more female workers will be forced out of their jobs.

Committee chairwoman Maria Miller said: "The arrival of a new baby puts family finances under extreme pressure. Yet, despite this, thousands of expectant and new mothers have no choice but to leave their work because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination. Shockingly this figure has almost doubled in the last decade, now standing at 54,000.

"There are now record numbers of women in work in the UK. The economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums.

"The Government's approach has lacked urgency and bite. It needs to set out 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."

In Germany, a dismissal ban prevents redundancies for pregnant employees except in extremely rare exceptional cases, such as gross misconduct by the worker or the employer getting into severe financial difficulties resulting in multiple job losses.

As well as calling for a similar law in the UK, the Committee said the three-month limit on taking pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases to an employment tribunal should be doubled to six months.

Claire Dawson, head of employment at law firm Slater and Gordon, said: "The law in the UK prohibits discrimination against pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave, but we regularly act for clients who have been made redundant while on or shortly after returning from maternity leave.

"The last thing they want to do at this time in their lives is engage in a legal battle and in many cases, they simply can't afford to."

EHRC deputy chair Caroline Waters said: "This important report shines a light on an issue of increasing concern. We urge the Government to raise its game and work with greater vigour to tackle the problem or risk hundreds of thousands of women continuing to suffer discrimination at work every year."

Business minister Margot James said: "Discrimination in the workplace is illegal with clear rules and regulations in place which every employer must follow.

"It is completely unacceptable that pregnant women and new mothers are apparently being forced to quit their jobs because of outdated attitudes."

Former Liberal Democrat equalities minister Jo Swinson, now chair of the charity Maternity Action, said the Government has no "coherent strategy" to reduce "alarmingly high rates of pregnancy discrimination at work".

She added: "The rates of pregnancy discrimination have sky-rocketed in recent years, and will continue to rise if we don't take action now."

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: "Maternity protections are part of people's employment rights but responsibility for enforcing these is poorly resourced and spread across a wide range of agencies, from HMRC to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.

"This confusing landscape means some bad bosses are getting away with treating their employees unfairly."

Meanwhile, Angela Rayner, shadow minister for women and equalities, said the report shows thousands of pregnant women are being "priced out of justice" because of tribunal fees introduced by the Government.

She said: "Women on low pay, shift work or zero hour contracts should have the same access to employment tribunals as those with substantial financial means, but access to justice has become unaffordable for thousands of women on low pay."