The Women and Equalities Committee has called for UK women to have protections similar to those in Germany after a ‘shocking’ increase in workplace pregnancy discrimination over the past decade.
MPs demand urgent action, calling on the Government to publish an ambitious, detailed plan within the next two years or risk a further rise in pregnant women being forced out of their work. Recommendations include changes to health and safety practices, preventing discriminatory redundancies and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers. Committee Chair Maria Miller commented: “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.”
Increased protection from redundancy
Research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that pregnant women and mothers now face more discrimination at work than they did a decade ago. 11 percent of women reported being either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. The Committee’s report urges the Government to change the law to give new and expectant mothers additional protection from redundancy. It recommends implementation of a system similar to that used in Germany under which such women can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. Maria Miller commented: “It is difficult to accept the EHRC and Government’s characterisation of this as merely about enforcement and we are persuaded by the evidence that additional protections against discriminatory redundancies are needed.”
Tribunals and access to justice
During their inquiry MPs heard strong evidence that women were not taking action in large enough numbers to ensure compliance from employers on existing protections. 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. Maria Miller commented: “The Government’s approach to improving compliance with pregnancy and maternity discrimination law has been confusing. It has stated that it is important to focus on enforcement and yet its main policy focus is awareness-raising and persuasion. It has voiced concern about the low numbers of women taking enforcement action against their employer, but has rejected the EHRC’s recommendations to remove unfair barriers to justice and has no plans to ease the burden of enforcement on women. We agree that it is preferable for workplace disputes to be resolved at the earliest possible stage and that tribunals should be a last resort. However we also recognise the important role that tribunals play in enabling individuals to seek redress, in holding employers to account, and as a wider deterrent.”
Extending maternity-related rights to casual, agency and zero hours workers
The Committee also heard evidence that there is a clear need for new and expectant mothers who are casual, agency and zero-hours workers to be properly protected. The Committee found that women in this group are more likely to report a risk or impact to their health and welfare than other types of worker; more likely to leave their employer as a result of health and safety risks not being resolved; and less likely to feel confident about challenging discriminatory behaviour. Maria Miller commented: “We heard concerning evidence about the experiences of pregnant casual, agency and zero hours workers. While we understand the reason they do not have the same day one rights as employees, employers should not be able to avoid affording regular, long-term workers the same basic rights as employees because they have a different contract type.” The Committee recommends that paid time off for antenatal appointments is extended to all workers after a short qualifying period and that the Government urgently review the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to casual, agency and zero-hours workers.
Other recommendations made by the committee include:
• Employers should be required to undertake an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding. The Health and Safety Executive should include this requirement in its guidance to employers by the end of 2016;
• New and expectant mothers who are concerned that their health and/or the health of their baby is being put at risk by their work should have an easily accessible, formal mechanism to compel their employer to deal with such risks appropriately
• 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;
• The Government should work with the main organisations providing free, good-quality, one-to-one advice to women on pregnancy and maternity discrimination to monitor the uptake of and estimated unmet need for such advice