Driving women out of the workforce

Pregnant women in the UK are reporting blatant cases of unfair – and unlawful – treatment.  Basic health and safety measures are refused, leaving women to choose between remaining in an unsafe working environment or leaving their job

Almost forty years after the UK passed its landmark sex discrimination legislation, an increasing number of pregnant women and new mothers in Britain are being forced out of the workforce purely because of their pregnancy.  In public debates, parental rights at work are widely presented as an unreasonable burden on business.  While discrimination law remains intact, the mechanisms for enforcing these rights have been weakened and services to assist women have been cut.  Far from becoming the most family-friendly country in Europe, the UK is creating a hostile climate for mothers at work.

Maternity Action, a charity advising pregnant women and new parents about their rights, has seen massive growth in the number of women seeking help with problems at work in recent years.  Demand for online information doubled in 2010 and in 2011, and is expected to double again in 2012.  Calls to their telephone advice service have continued to grow, and this spiraling demand is echoed by law firms working in this area.

Women are reporting blatant cases of unfair – and unlawful – treatment.  Pregnant women are facing aggressive performance management after years of positive work evaluations.  Basic health and safety measures are refused, leaving women to choose between remaining in an unsafe working environment or leaving their job.  One woman reported that her employer would not return her call when she tried to arrange her return to work after maternity leave, while another was given her termination notice 45 minutes after notifying her employer of her pregnancy.

Mothers are also disappearing from the workplace in the waves of restructuring and redundancy across the country.  While ostensibly based on objective criteria and an assessment of positions rather than individuals, discrimination is widespread in redundancy processes.  This is particularly difficult to combat as many processes are not transparent and there is scope for selection criteria to be ‘massaged’ to achieve the desired result.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission and ACAS recently released guidance for employers on maternity and redundancy with the aim of reducing bad practice.

Pregnancy discrimination at work was widespread in the UK before the recession commenced.  Equal Opportunity Commission research from 2005 found that half of all pregnant women at work experienced some form of pregnancy discrimination, and just under 8% lost their jobs as a result.  Awareness of maternity rights was very low and very few women took action to protect their rights.  Only 8% of women who lost their jobs took formal action, such as submitting a grievance, and only 3% took their cases to the employment tribunal.

The very low rates of legal action on pregnancy discrimination make the current moves to restrict access to enforcement measures difficult to understand.  The Government is abolishing the questionnaire procedure which allowed women to obtain additional information from their employers to assist with their discrimination case.  From 2013, women taking a pregnancy discrimination claim to the employment tribunal will face fees of £1200 (US$1900).  This will effectively deter all but the most affluent claimants. 

The attack on parental rights is part of a broader programme of policy and legal changes to reduce employment rights.  The right to pursue unfair dismissal claims has been weakened across the board.  A new form of employment contract announced in late 2012, the ‘Employee Owner contract’, removes unfair dismissal rights in their entirety, subject to certain conditions. 

Advice services have experienced extensive cuts under the Government’s austerity measures.  In addition, Legal Aid has been withdrawn for most employment matters.

Voices within and around Government have been highly critical of parental rights at work.  In July 2011, the Prime Minister’s then Director of Policy suggested that the Government repeal all maternity protections at work.  A year later, the Free Enterprise Group, which is supported by Conservative Parliamentarians, called for smaller businesses to be exempt from maternity regulations.  The Government commissioned Beecroft Report on employment rights recommended that small businesses could opt out of parental leave arrangements.  The Conservative think tank, Politeia, bizarrely argued that maternity rights were not merely a burden for business but also held back women’s progress at work.

This pattern of negative comments is difficult to reconcile with the positions taken by Government during the 2010 elections.  In its manifesto, the Conservative Party emphasized its commitment to supporting parents, promising to make the UK ‘the most family-friendly country in Europe’.  Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, made similarly positive noises about working families. 

Advocates for maternity and parental rights at work have been left to fight a rear-guard action to protect basic entitlements.  Valuing Maternity, a campaign supported by 20 national charities and unions, has been working to defend maternity rights.  In a rare win, the recently announced Shared Parental Leave reforms have maintained existing employment rights for parents while introducing some modest flexibility.  In its original formulation, women would have faced a substantial loss of employment protections after the initial 18 weeks of leave.  Proposals to increase leave for fathers have, unsurprisingly, been deferred for consideration until 2018.

This is a very difficult environment in which to challenge the high rates of pregnancy discrimination which are forcing women out of their jobs.  Public criticism of parental rights at work is giving hard pressed employers tacit permission to cut corners.  Employers who break the law are facing a decreasing risk of legal consequences.  Women are slow to complain about poor treatment at work for fear of losing their jobs.  Advice agencies are overstretched and under-funded to help the women who seek support.  Unions are already doing battle over unfair dismissal rights, redundancies and austerity policies.

There is an urgent need for action to enable UK women to continue working during their childbearing years.  

About the author

Rosalind Bragg is Director of Maternity Action, a UK charity working on maternity and equalities.  Maternity Action provides advice and information to over 30,000 parents each month on rights at work, maternity benefits and the rights of women from abroad.  Rosalind has held several posts in the voluntary sector and civil service in the UK and Australia.