By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor
Sally, a young woman working 30 hours per week as a waitress and newly pregnant with her first child, was wrongly told by her manager/employer that she was only entitled to take six weeks of maternity leave, and warned that she would be sacked if she did not return to work at the end of that period. When Sally protested that she was legally entitled to 12 months of maternity leave – including nine months on statutory maternity pay – her hours were summarily reduced to just 15 hours per week, a deliberate move to lower Sally’s wages below the level necessary for her to retain an entitlement to statutory maternity pay.
Sally is one of the hundreds of women who contacted the Working Families legal helpline in recent years after being subjected to pregnancy or maternity discrimination by their employer. In 2014, as in previous years, about one in ten of the 2,350 women who contacted the helpline over the year appeared to our advisers to have been subject to such unlawful discrimination.
Sadly, such discrimination is nothing new: in 2005, a landmark investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission concluded that half of all pregnant working women suffered a related disadvantage at work, and that some 30,000 pregnant women and new mothers were being forced out of their jobs each year. But all the available evidence suggests that – due not least to rapid growth in the use of zero-hours contracts and other ‘casualised’ forms of employment since the onset of economic recession in 2008 – such discrimination is now more common in UK workplaces than ever before, with rogue employers seemingly emboldened to discriminate ever more blatantly.
That’s certainly the impression given by the shocking personal stories posted on Pregnant then screwed, a new website founded by Joeli Brearley, who lost her job as a self-employed project manager after becoming pregnant with her first child. In Joeli’s own words, the website is intended to provide:
“A place for women to tell their stories anonymously and in their own words. This is not only a cathartic way to release some of the bruising and unfair experiences they have undergone, it is also a medium to shine a light on this systemic problem. It is a way to open public debate and change common perceptions about pregnant women whilst campaigning for more effective laws to protect them”.
In just a few weeks, Joeli has generated an impressive amount of media coverage, appearing on BBC TV’s Victoria Live show and BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph. And it must be hoped that newly installed government ministers such as the Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Business Secretary, Sajiv Javid, have been paying attention while they get their feet under their Whitehall desks. Because – just as pregnancy and maternity discrimination has become ever more common in UK workplaces – it has also become far more difficult for women to challenge such unlawful action by their employer.
Access to already overstretched sources of legal advice and support – such as law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux – has been severely curtailed by cuts to local authority funding and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid. In March this year, the justice select committee of MPs reported that one in six law centres have closed since 2013, and that the CAB service has lost 350 specialist advisers. And, perhaps most damagingly of all, the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 by the Ministry of Justice in July 2013 has created a significant barrier to justice, leading to an 80 per cent fall in the number of sex or pregnancy related discrimination claims.
During the General Election campaign, former business secretary Vince Cable conceded that the Coalition’s introduction of fees had been a “very bad” mistake, as the fees are “discouraging people – and especially low-paid women – from pursuing their [legal] rights”. Accusing former Conservative ministerial colleagues such as former justice secretary Chris Grayling of “an act of remarkable bad faith” for failing to carry out a promised review of the fees regime after 12 months, Dr Cable told the Independent “we urgently need a proper review to be sure no one is being denied access to justice”.
As a member of the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination, Working Families believes that conducting that long-promised review of the fees regime must now be an urgent priority for new ministers. In February, shortly before the dissolution of Parliament, then minister for women and equalities Nicky Morgan told the House of Commons:
“We have made a commitment to conduct a review of the introduction of the fees, and we will do so, but we think that this is a matter for the next Administration and the next Parliament”.
Having since been reappointed to her Cabinet-level role, Nicky Morgan is a senior member of that ‘next Administration’, and it must be hoped that she is now pressing the new justice secretary, Michael Gove, to make good on her promise to Parliament. For the blight of unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination by rogue employers will not be tackled so long as women are denied effective access to justice.