Government announces “zero tolerance” on workplace discrimination against pregnant women

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Moya Crockett
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In recent years, the UK has seen a shocking rise in the number of pregnant women and new mothers being discriminated against at work.

Now, a minister has said that the government must take a “zero tolerance” approach to the issue – but was hit with criticism for not committing to a concrete action plan.

Business minister Margot James said on Thursday that female employees may require greater legal protections once they become pregnant or give birth. She promised that the government will “[make] sure new and expectant mothers have sufficient protections from redundancy”, according to a report by the Guardian.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Policy, where James works, said it was “appalling that some new and expectant mothers feel alienated and discriminated against in the workplace”, adding: “Not only is pregnancy and maternity discrimination unlawful, it is also makes absolutely no business sense.”

However, the government offered no clear strategy for tackling the problem, leading Conservative MP Maria Miller to call its response “a missed opportunity”.

Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, expressed frustration that the government had not shown more “energy and resolve”. She said that the committee had “asked for specific steps to be taken”, but that “the government has responded with a disheartening lack of detail or new ideas”.

It is illegal for companies to discriminate or treat any female employees poorly because of pregnancy or pregnancy-related issues under the Equality Act 2010. Despite this, a report published by the Women and Equalities Committee last year found there had been a “shocking and unacceptable” rise in workplace discrimination against expectant and new mothers.

Some 25% of women felt forced to leave their jobs because health and safety concerns surrounding their pregnancy and maternity were not met, according to the study. More than 10% of mothers reported losing their jobs, while a staggering 77% of pregnant women and new mothers currently experience discrimination at work. In 2006, this figure stood at 45%.

When Stylist investigated the topic in 2015, meanwhile, we encountered women whose bosses expected them to have abortions; who were given 24 hours to resign; and whose CEOs accused them of “playing the maternity system”. 

But many mothers are deterred from bringing pregnancy-related discrimination claims to employment tribunals thanks to the expense and difficulty of the procedure. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trade Union Centre (TUC), told the Guardian that it can cost “up to £1,200 to take a pregnancy discrimination claim”.

The Women and Equalities Committee want to see a system introduced in Britain similar to that already in place in Germany, where it’s illegal for employers to make women redundant during and after pregnancy except in exceptional circumstances. They also want to see an overhaul of the current tribunal system to make it simpler and more affordable.

But the government declined to make changes to the tribunal system in its most recent statement, and failed to respond to calls for lower fees for discrimination claims.

O’Grady said that she advised all expectant and new mothers to join a union. “As the equality and human rights commission highlighted, pregnant women and new mums are treated better in workplaces that recognise trade unions,” she said.

Images: iStock, Rex Features