31 August 2016
The government has rejected calls for an individual risk assessment for new and expectant mothers despite evidence of dire conditions pushing women out of work.
A report released today by the Women and Equalities Committee said there has been a “shocking” increase in discrimination against pregnant workers and new mothers, more of whom now report poor treatment at work than they did a decade ago.
The Committee said it was “disappointed” that both the government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) did not deem it necessary to force employers to conduct individual risk assessments for these vulnerable workers, saying the situation is likely to get worse if it is not tackled effectively.
Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the EHRC found that 77% of women have encountered at least one potentially discriminatory or negative experience, 61% had suffered more than one experience, and that half of mothers reported that starting a family had a negative impact on their career.
Shockingly, over one in ten mothers said they were dismissed, made compulsorily redundant, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. This accounts for 54,000 women – around double the number reporting similar experiences a decade ago. A further 10% said they had been discouraged from attending antenatal appointments.
What’s more, 89% of employers said it was easy to protect their workers from unfavorable treatment during pregnancy or after the birth, suggesting there is a mismatch between employer awareness and worker experiences.
“The government’s approach has lacked urgency and bite,” Chair of the Committee Maria Miller said. “It needs to set out a detailed plan outlining the specific actions it will take to tackle this unacceptable level of discrimination. This work must be underpinned by concrete targets and changes to laws and protections to increase compliance by employers to improve women’s lives.”
According to the Committee’s report, the duty to conduct individual risk assessments for new mothers and pregnant women would help provide a safe working environment and does not constitute a significant burden on business.
However, the government has argued individual assessments would mean employers would no longer have to consider risks to new mothers in their general risk assessment. The Committee said it did not “accept” this assertion. Meanwhile, the EHRC has recommended that employers are encouraged to simply have conversations with women about risks, but the Committee believes this does not go far enough to persuade unscrupulous employers to look after their workers’ wellbeing.
The Committee called on the government to publish a detailed plan on the action it will take to curb this rising discrimination within the next two years, make changes to health and safety practices, increase protection against redundancy, improve access to justice, and provide better protection for the most vulnerable workers such as those on casual, agency or zero-hours contracts.
The Committee particularly hit out at the government over its approach to tribunals and enforcement.
“The government’s approach to improving compliance with pregnancy and maternity discrimination law has been confusing,” Miller said. “It has stated that it is important to focus on enforcement and yet its main policy focus is awareness-raising and persuasion. It has voiced concern about the low numbers of women taking enforcement action against their employer, but has rejected the EHRC’s recommendations to remove unfair barriers to justice and has no plans to ease the burden of enforcement on women.“
Read the Committee’s recommendations here and the full report here.
In the Institute of Employment Rights’ new Manifesto for Labour Law – 25 policy proposals for the next Labour government – we recommend a legal framework to help reduce discrimination in the workplace.
Firstly, we propose strengthening statutory individual rights, including discrimination and health and safety laws, and the implementation of a new ‘worker’ status to ensure these rights cover vulnerable groups such as agency workers and people currently misclassified as self-employed. These rights would be enforceable from day one of employment and would be enforced by collectively agreed procedures or in specialist labour courts, which we recommend are established to deal exclusively with all employment and labour-related matters.
Secondly, we propose the introduction of Labour Inspectors as enforcement agents. They would have the power to initiate legal proceedings on behalf of workers, cancel dismissal notices, order reinstatements and require employers to cease and desist from taking action prejudicial to workers.
Orders made by the Labour Inspector could be appealed by either employer or worker through employment tribunals, which we propose should be free at the point of use and form part of the first tier of the new Labour Court. We recommend removing the obligation to have a pre-hearing, removing the cap on unfair dismissal compensation, and introducing criminal penalties for employers that fail to comply with tribunal awards.