A campaign win on pregnancy discrimination – but more work needed
The Government’s recent announcement of £1 million to research pregnancy discrimination at work is a useful step in the right direction, if somewhat overdue. What’s missing from the announcement are the simple and obvious measures which will enable women to exercise their maternity rights in the workplace.
In 2006, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) reported that half of all pregnant women in the workplace experienced some form of pregnancy discrimination and 30 000 women each year lost their jobs as a result. These figures were shocking at the time and prompted action by Government to inform women about their rights and to better support small employers to understand their obligations.
Since the economic downturn began the situation became considerably worse.
At Maternity Action, a charity providing advice on maternity and parental rights, we found that demand for our services was rising exponentially. By 2012, we were answering 2,200 advice calls each year but receiving 15 calls for every one we answered. Demand for online information has doubled each year for the past three years, with parents downloading 397,000 information sheets last year. We receive no Government funding for this service, making it difficult to expand to meet need.
While unfair and unlawful treatment of pregnant women and new mothers at work became more widespread, the issue dropped off the national agenda. Redundancies were widespread and we could raise little interest within Government about the problems faced by this group of workers.
The Valuing Maternity campaign was our response to this. Led by Maternity Action and supported by twenty national women’s groups, parenting groups, advice organisations and unions, the campaign pressed Government to defend maternity rights in the workplace and protect maternity services. The announcement on research into pregnancy discrimination is a major win from this campaigning.
Research into pregnancy discrimination will effectively confront the tired claims that only a small minority of women are affected. It was only a few months ago that Business Minister, Vince Cable, told us that there was no evidence that the problem was widespread. We are confident that a well-designed data gathering project will pick up on the many cases of poor treatment of mothers at work which are not currently reflected in labour market statistics
Research will also provide a sound evidence base for targeted interventions with particular industry sectors and employer types. Care workers, for example, fare particularly badly on health and safety measures during pregnancy. Smaller employers tend to face difficulties keeping up to date on changes to the law.
The research announcement does not mean Government can delay action on pregnancy discrimination until the findings are in. There are simple, straightforward steps which can be taken to remove barriers to justice and support women to enforce existing rights.
The first step is to remove the new £1200 fee to take a pregnancy discrimination case to the employment tribunal. Fees of this magnitude effectively deter all but the most affluent of women, irrespective of the strength of their case. The Government should also halt abolition of the questionnaire procedure. The questionnaire enables women to better assess the evidence to support their claim and determine their likelihood of success. Funding for specialist advice services is also critical to ensure that women know their rights and can get help to exercise them.
The evidence to support these interventions is already to hand. The EOC inquiry found that only 8% of women who lost their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination took any formal action and only 3% took their cases to the tribunal. These figures, which date from 2006, are extremely low and reflect the financial, emotional and time pressures on women during pregnancy and early motherhood, as well as limited public awareness of maternity rights. Fees, reduced advice services and procedural barriers make it even harder for women to take action.
We are not alone in calling for action. The recent Select Committee on Business Innovation and Skills report, ‘Women in the Workplace’, recommended abolition of the employment tribunal fees for pregnancy discrimination claims and called for the questionnaire procedure to be reinstated. The committee argued that enabling women to realise their potential in the workplace makes good economic sense as well as supporting the broader objectives of gender equality.
This eminently sensible approach has found little favour within Government. A recent letter from Employment Minister, Jo Swinson, informed us that it is Government policy for all users of the tribunal system to ‘make a contribution’ to the costs. She assured us that the Ministry of Justice will monitor the impact of fees on those with protected characteristics.
The Valuing Maternity campaign has active support and involvement from unions with both the TUC Conference and the National Women’s Conference passing motions in support. To date, this coalition of unions, women’s groups, parenting groups and advice agencies has been successful in pushing the Government to recognize that pregnancy discrimination is a problem. It is clear, however, that there is more campaigning ahead of us.