Category Archives: Discrimination

A pregnant question for new ministers

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.

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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.

 

 

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Introducing YESS – because life’s too short to litigate

In this guest post, renowned employment lawyer Camilla Palmer explains what led her to establish new charity Your Employment Settlement Service (YESS).

Many bemoan the gender equality gap at work and wonder why it persists after 40 years of equality legislation.  My answer is: ‘It’s pregnancy stupid’ – at least a large part of it is down to pregnancy and maternity discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, and the long hours’ culture.

For 20 years I have advised and acted for women whose careers have come to an end because their pregnancy has put pay to promotion, career progression and sometimes their job. Too many employers assume that women will not return from maternity leave and if they do, they will have lost their commitment. Common scenarios for returning women are:

  • Your maternity locum has been promoted so you will be reporting to him/her;
  • There is a redundancy situation. We assessed you in your absence and Yes, you are the only person being made redundant;
  • Your pay and terms and conditions will be the same when you return but we have re-allocated some of your responsibilities (the main ones as it happens),
  • We did not want to disturb you while you were away so we re-structured and appointed a new person above you.

Why is there such inequality, isn’t there a law against it?

If you were pregnant or on maternity leave, looking after at least one baby, would you find the time, energy, money to sue your employer to enforce your rights?

Of course, there are a lot of very good employers out there who try to ensure that women do not drop out of work because of punishing long hours or maternity absence. YESS wants to work with these employers and encourage more to follow their example.

Finding a new way

After nearly 20 years of litigating, often for those who suffered discrimination because of their pregnancy or maternity leave, I have decided that enough is enough.  Why?  Because I see too many employees damaged, one way or another, by the litigation process, which is costly, stressful, time consuming and often career suicide.

There has to be another way, particularly now we have high tribunal fees of up to £1,200 (since July 2013), and soon we will have mandatory early conciliation. While free Acas conciliation is good in principle, how does an employee settle a case without knowing if it has legs and how much it is worth?  Acas will not advise on the merits of a claim.

There is no easy fix but we hope that YESS – Your Employment Settlement Service will help employees to keep their job AND employers to improve their equality record.

What does YESS do? Early intervention and negotiation

We advise employees how to settle any dispute, or potential dispute, at the earliest opportunity.  We hope to help employees achieve their objectives, whether this is to stay in their job, perhaps on flexible hours, or negotiate an exit package if it is too late to save their job.  This will include:

  • Reading relevant documents
  • Meeting with the employee
  • Providing written legal advice
  • Negotiating with the employer
  • Advising on settlement agreements

We offer fixed fees once we have done an initial assessment of the situation.

Why YESS

  • We aim to achieve early resolution so avoid the time, stress, costs of litigation
  • We never litigate, so can have a more constructive dialogue with the employer
  • We offer affordable and fixed fees
  • We are a charity; any surplus will go to provide pro bono advice

YESS lawyers are highly experienced, seasoned litigators who have had enough of litigation. They include current and ex-employment judges who understand that many claimants have an unrealistic expectation of what the tribunal can do for them and who have seen the impact of tribunal proceedings on the parties.