13 April 2016
By Scarlet Harris, Women’s Equality Officer, TUC Equality and Employment Rights Department.
Last month the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report and recommendations on pregnancy discrimination. In response, the TUC’s Touchstone blog published the article below.
Today the EHRC published its long awaited report and recommendations on pregnancy discrimination. This follows on from last year’s interim report which found that 54,000 women per year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. The final report leads with the astounding headline that 77%, the equivalent of 390,000 women, experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work each year.
A reasonable person might think that a colleague’s pregnancy is a cause for celebration and a reason to show them as much, if not more, courtesy and consideration as you usually would. You might even buy them flowers and a card. But apparently there are a lot of really unreasonable employers out there. Not only are women being dismissed or unfairly selected for redundancy when they announce their happy news, but one in five women find themselves subject to bullying and harassment while pregnant and one in ten are refused time off for antenatal appointments. Some mothers get an even more raw deal than others. Single mothers and younger mothers are more likely than other mothers to be badly treated by their employer.
Depressingly, these findings chime with what union members tell us. Below are just a few snippets of what women have told the TUC via a survey on pregnancy discrimination in 2014.
“I was shouted at and sworn at for being in the toilet with morning sickness. I was told I was using my pregnancy to get away with doing things despite my caseload being unchanged.”
“I suffered from a huge amount of harassment and bullying and had to plead to get time off for ante-natal appointments.”
“I work with troubled teenagers (mainly male) and whilst heavily pregnant was still expected to be alone in a classroom with these students. Two other members of staff were attacked, one with scissors, by these students during this time.”
So, given that the first legislation protecting women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy was introduced 40 years ago and since then successive legislation has strengthened these rights, why on earth are women still being discriminated against on this astronomical scale?
Perhaps at least part of the answer lies in the EHRC’s finding that of these 390,000 women experiencing some kind of discrimination during pregnancy, only 1% took their employer to an employment tribunal. Now there are a whole host of reasons why a woman with a new baby might be reluctant to take her employer to tribunal. The EHRC report cites the fear of negative repercussions at work, lack of information about their rights, and stress and tiredness as reasons given by women for not pursuing a claim.
On top of all of these perfectly understandable reasons which have always deterred women from pursuing a tribunal claim when pregnant or on maternity leave, women now have the added barrier of a whopping £1,200 fee to go to tribunal.
When the EHRC last looked at pregnancy discrimination in 20015, the proportion of women going to tribunal was 3%, the fact that this has fallen to 1% since the introduction of fees in 2013 seems to point to fees acting as a very real barrier to justice. The EHRC says as much and highlights the fact that since the introduction in 2013 of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%.
The EHRC’s recommendation on this point was disappointing in that it didn’t go so far as to call for fees to be scrapped. But even the Commission’s soft recommendation to “make changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure that fees are not a barrier to accessing justice” was too much for the government to stomach. In its response to the EHRC’s report, the government accepted every single recommendation except the recommendations relating to tribunal fees.
The government-rejected recommendations from the EHRC report (p12)
Given the government’s savage attacks on trade unions in the guise of the Trade Union Bill, they’re unlikely to welcome the EHRC’s findings on trade unions either. According to the report, employers who recognise trade unions report greater understanding of rights relating to pregnancy and maternity and, conversely, mothers working for an employer that did not recognise a trade union were more likely than average to report being forced to leave their job.