Parliament is today expected to pass a bill that will bring greater protections against redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers, a reaction to studies that suggest maternity discrimination remains rife in British workplaces.
The Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, introduced by the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, will prohibit employers from being able to make a woman redundant from the point that she notifies them she is pregnant until six months after the end of her maternity leave.
Speaking in the Commons, Maria Miller said it was a scandal that in 2019 so many women should be fearful of losing their jobs simply because they were pregnant, and that family life and the economy would both suffer unless workplace practices were brought into the 21st century.
According to research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in 20 women are made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave. It found one in 10 were treated worse by their employer after returning to work having had a baby, while one in five experienced harassment or negative comments from colleagues or managers.
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Miller said: “We warned almost three years ago of the significant discrimination and poor treatment faced by 54,000 pregnant women and mothers at work each year. The cost of this situation is high for women on so many levels.”
A report published in August 2016 by the previous committee demanded urgent action, calling for UK women to have protections similar to those in Germany after a “shocking'” increase in workplace pregnancy discrimination over the past decade.
Under current protections, a woman who is made redundant during her maternity leave must be offered any suitable alternative vacancies. Nick Hall, partner at Hewitsons, said the problem with this, however, was that there had to be a vacancy.
“There is no obligation to create a new job. Furthermore, the employer only has to offer the vacancy if it is a suitable position for the employee – and what an employee sees as suitable may well differ from the view of the employer,” he said. “Employees often feel particularly vulnerable after they first tell their boss they are pregnant and for a period of time after they return from maternity leave – systems and colleagues may be different and it can take a while for an employee returning from maternity leave to get back into working life.”
Miller said the law as it currently stood was “too often ignored or circumvented by employers, either because it is poorly understood or due to ingrained stereotypes about new mothers’ place in the workplace, so the existing protection does not work.”
Speaking to the BBC, campaigner Joeli Brearley warned the proposed bill could work against women. She said: “It could actually make some forms of discrimination worse if employers feel it's onerous to hire women.”
The founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed added: "I do believe Maria Miller's bill will help, but the difference it will make is minimal. Fewer than 1 per cent of women who experience pregnancy or maternity discrimination even raise a tribunal claim, so if women can't use the law to protect themselves there's little point in enhancing it. So alongside bills like this we would also like to see legislation that gives women greater access to justice.”
Under the new proposed rules, a situation where the employer ceased business in the area where the pregnant woman or new mother was employed would not be covered, and Miller made clear the bill would not, for example, apply in the case of a dismissal for gross misconduct.
Women who experienced a stillbirth or miscarriage would similarly be protected for up to six months from the end of their pregnancy or any leave they were entitled to.
The bill’s second reading will take place today.