Column: Pregnancy discrimination is rife

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As a lead in equalities and human rights I have consistently called upon consecutive Governments to strengthen protections for pregnant women, those on maternity leave and returners from maternity leave.

We, in equalities and human rights, have been joined in this advocacy by national charities and others: for example, a recent review by Maternity Action culminated in a report being issued to Government ministers, identifying that every year there are 500,000 pregnant women in the workforce whose protections under the current legal framework are insufficient.

They cite examples of women being not merely at risk of unfair treatment but experiencing unfair treatment during pregnancy and on their return to work after maternity leave.

Citizens Advice reported a 58 per cent rise in maternity discrimination enquiries, making an increase in claims even more likely. The most vulnerable workers are casual and agency workers who may not have the right to claim unfair dismissal but do have the right not to suffer discrimination, if they were dismissed on the grounds of their pregnancy or the fact they had children, they still attract protection.

Pregnant employees and mothers should not be getting treated less favourably than other childfree or male comparators. Yet, drawing attention to these concerns by national charities and even Government departments is shockingly nothing new, it goes back decades.

A review by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Policy in January 2017, following a call from the House of Commons, Women and Equalities Committee, called for urgent change, and at that time business minister Margot Jones promised the Government was prepared to listen and act.

Citizens advice have reported a 58 per cent rise in maternity discrimination enquiries, making an increase in claims even more likely

Yet here we are near the end of 2017, and we still have national charities and equality and human rights advocates making representation to Government to ask them to address the blatant discrimination and unfair treatments that have been escalating against pregnant women, those on maternity leave and those returning from maternity leave into the workforce.

The social cost and business cost of discrimination is high, as is the cost to employers, of women being forced to leave their job as a result of pregnancy and maternity-related potential discrimination or disadvantage, as estimated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2016.

The cost identified was around £278.8 million over a year, largely due to recruitment and training, lost productivity and to SMP payments if the woman was on maternity leave when she left.

Examples, of cases I have been obliged to support/contest from our region, from an equalities and human rights perspective, include the firing of and discrimination against pregnant employees, including denial of time off, demoting pregnant employees, being denied promotion; enforced salary reductions; loss of non-salary benefits; forced time off and restrictions on work, the harassment of employees for being pregnant, refusals to hire women because they are pregnant; not providing other reasonable accommodations; and on one occasion the firing of an employee for pumping breast milk, in the privacy of an office toilet, as no other designated place was made available by the employer.

It is not only in women’s best interest but ultimately not in this country’s best interest for this unlawful discrimination to continue. Our calls to Government to intervene with action will not abate either, until promises of change come to fruition.