worker’s rights

£1 million to investigate pregnancy discrimination: a welcome move for women’s rights, but urgent action needed

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This is a blog I wrote for Maternity Action and originally appeared on the F-Word.

pregnant womanMaternity rights organisations are celebrating this week at the news that the government will fund a £1 million research programme into pregnancy discrimination. The last investigation was published in 2006 and since 2008 we have been calling for further research.

Maria Miller MP, Minister for Women and Equalities announced the news on Monday, breaking the Coalition’s silence on the issue. The 2006 investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission(EOC) found that half of all pregnant women in the workforce experienced discrimination and around 30,000 women a year were forced out of their jobs simply for being pregnant or taking maternity leave.

Since the economic downturn began, pregnant women and new mothers have faced an increasingly difficult time in the workplace and at Maternity Action we have seen a startling increase in calls to our advice line and downloads of ouradvice sheets. The number of women losing their jobs is likely to have doubled over the recession, but we need this research to investigate the nature and incidence of this discrimination.

Most women who lose their jobs are not fired but are treated so badly that they feel they have no choice but to leave:

“He made my life intolerable… saying I wasn’t doing my job properly any more … In the end, it got so bad, he just kept complaining about my work, and he’d never said anything about it before, and saying I wasn’t pulling my weight in the office.” (Davis et al, 2005)

Pregnancy discrimination has far reaching implications. Those women who lose their jobs miss out on £12m a year in Statutory Maternity Pay and return to hourly earnings 5% lower than before. Stress and poverty during a pregnancy can have severe impacts on the mother and the well-being of the child, being linked to premature births and ongoing health complications with the baby.

“I went to the council offices…and said ‘Oh my god, I’m pregnant and I’ve just been fired’. Reality hit. My rent was £250 a week, which I could very easily afford last week. I was so completely distraught… saying I should have an abortion, I can’t afford this child.” (Davis et al, 2005)

The problem here is not lack of legislation – the principles of non-discrimination were established decades ago – it is non-compliance by businesses. Non-compliance comes from both savvy bosses flouting the rules but also from a shocking lack of knowledge by both women and their employers of maternity rights. When asked, only 8% of HR professionals knew health and safety obligations and only 54% of employees knew their rights.Read More »£1 million to investigate pregnancy discrimination: a welcome move for women’s rights, but urgent action needed