Many of you will have seen the fallout in the press on recently following the publication of the report from the Women and Equalities Committee. Perhaps the most shocking headline to emerge from the report was that the number of new mothers who felt that they had no choice but to leave their work because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination has almost doubled in the last decade to 54,000.
Why the increase? One answer is likely to be that a good proportion of those ex-employees are on temporary or zero hours’ contracts – according to Citizen’s Advice Bureau there has been a 58% increase in people taking temporary jobs; and zero hours’ contracts are most prominent in traditional female roles such as care work. At the same time, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that women returning to work after having a baby fall 33% behind men in terms of pay in the subsequent 12 years.
There is a good case for saying that differing types of contract should have different employment rights attached to them - and that is indeed the justification for excluding temporary workers and many zero hours workers from the maternity rights framework. But doesn’t that argument break down when temporary or zero hours work stops being a matter of choice, and as the CAB point out, women are forced into these types of working arrangement?
Because there are now record numbers of women in work in the UK – the Women and Equalities Committee says that the economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection is given to expectant and new mums. They recommend urgent action to produce a plan which will mean that the rise seen over the last decade will not happen again. Specifically, they recommend changes to health and safety practices (including compulsory risk assessments and an enforcement mechanism for when these are not acted on), an emphasis on preventing discriminatory redundancies, a review of access to Employment Tribunals for pregnancy and maternity related claims, and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers.
Increased protection from redundancy
Interestingly, there is already some robust protection in place for pregnant women facing redundancy – when suitable alternative employment is considered for a pool of workers, a pregnant employee has the automatic right to be offered the role in preference to her peers. However, despite this, the report points out that 11% of women reported being either dismissed or made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. In order to address this, the Committee urges implementation of a system similar to that used in Germany under which such women can be made redundant only in specified circumstances.
Tribunals and access to justice
The Committee concluded that women were not taking legal action – meaning Employment Tribunal action - in large enough numbers to ensure compliance from employers with existing protections. It accepted that the three-month time limit on pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases being brought to the Tribunal did not recognise the pressures on expectant and new mothers and recommended that the time limit for claims is extended to six months. The Committee also recommended a substantial reduction in tribunal fees for pregnancy and maternity related discrimination cases.
Extending maternity-related rights to casual, agency and zero hours workers
The Committee identified new and expectant mothers who are casual, agency and zero-hours workers as particularly at risk and being worthy of being properly protected. They found that women with this type of contract are more likely to report a risk to their health and welfare than other workers and are more likely to leave their job as a result of those risks not being resolved. They were also less likely the Committee said to feel confident about challenging discriminatory behaviour. Amongst their recommendations were for paid time off for antenatal appointments to be extended to all workers after a short qualifying period and an urgent review of the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to casual, agency and zero-hours workers.