Tag Archives: Maternity 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.

sex

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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#GE2015: what might the other parties offer working families, if part of a new coalition?

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Previously on this blog, we have compared the manifestos of the three main Westminster parties – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – against our own ‘families & work’ manifesto, Making work actually work for all. In this post we look at the manifestos of: the Green Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, and Ukip. For, while none of these parties has any chance of forming the next government, it is quite possible that one or more may end up as part of a coalition government or supporting a minority government. And that could mean significant influence on government policy on some issues.

Our ‘families & work’ manifesto sets out eight specific policy proposals, grouped under four headings: time; equality; money; and childcare infrastructure. Each proposal was chosen as being emblematic of what we and the member organisations of the Families & Work Group believe should be the broad thrust of policy reform in these four areas. And each offered the political parties an opportunity to demonstrate a practical commitment to our vision of work that actually works for all families and all employers.

Time

Our two proposals were:

  • Adopt a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so as to increase the supply of good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs; and
  • Create a new statutory right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather a crisis in their caring responsibilities without giving up work.

No such policy pledges appear in the manifestos of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, or Ukip. Indeed, none of the four parties appears to attach any great importance to the issues of ‘flexible working’ or ‘work-family balance’ – though the Greens do pledge to “phase in a 35-hour [working] week”. None uses the term ‘flexible working’ even once.

As with the manifestos of three main Westminster parties,  this is deeply disappointing. For – as demonstrated by our recent report on the work of our legal helpline in 2014, and an important new report this week by the Child Poverty Action Group – the notion of real work-life balance choice remains a fiction for all too many low-paid parents and carers. In low-paid sectors of the economy like social care, cleaning, and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of men and especially women work in ‘casualised’ forms of employment  – such as zero-hours contracts – that offer little in the way of pay, guaranteed hours, work-life balance rights, or job security. And what Citizens Advice calls the “hyper-flexibility” of such jobs is all one way.

Even for those in more secure forms of employment, there are key gaps in the legal framework for time off work to fulfil family or other caring responsibilities, especially at times of major crisis such as the onset of disability of a child. All too many working parents are forced to rely heavily on grandparents to provide childcare. And there is a severe shortage of good quality part-time or otherwise flexible jobs  – a situation that puts single parents and parents of disabled children at a particular disadvantage. Yet Camden Council and others are showing that it is perfectly possible for the public sector to start addressing this shortage by adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design, and the private sector should be encouraged to follow.

Equality

Our two proposals were:

  • Increase statutory paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, paid at 90 per cent of earnings; and
  • Reform and simplify shared parental leave, including making it a ‘Day One’ right for fathers.

As with flexible working and work-family balance, the issues of maternity, paternity and parental leave are barely touched upon in the manifestos of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and Ukip. The SNP  says that it would take action to secure “greater support for parents with increased paternity leave”, but gives no further detail. The words ‘maternity’, ‘paternity’ and ‘parental’ do not appear at all in either the Plaid Cymru or the Ukip manifestos. And, while the Ukip manifesto uses the word ‘leave’ 31 times, in all but five cases this is either as part of the phrase “leave the EU” or in a reference to the immigration status of ‘leave to remain’ in the UK.

Again, this is disappointing. For, while the rate at which it is paid remains so pitifully low – less than 60 per cent of the national minimum wage (see below) – take up of the new shared parental leave is likely to be slow.  Yet it is imperative that we get fathers more involved in caring for their children, to ensure gender equality in the home as well as at work, limit the time that very young children spend in non-parental care, and reduce overall childcare costs for families. So the next government needs to work towards longer, more flexible and better paid periods of dedicated leave for fathers (and other partners).

More positively, the SNP manifesto includes pledges to “ensure that women are fairly treated at work with action to secure equal pay” and to “support the tightening of the law on maternity discrimination, with legislation introduced within the first year of a new UK government.” Similarly the Green Party pledges to “make equal pay for men and women a reality”, and to “ensure that the laws to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity pay are properly enforced”, including by “reducing employment tribunal fees so that tribunals are accessible to workers”. Interestingly, this week Business Secretary Vince Cable has admitted that the tribunal fees introduced in July 2013 were a “very bad move” that “should be reversed” as they are “discouraging people – particularly low paid women – from pursuing their [workplace] rights”. Plus there are welcome Green Party pledges to “reinstate” the funding of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, and “restore cuts to legal aid” – though it’s not at all clear how the £3.5 billion cost of the latter over five years would be funded.

The Plaid Cymru manifesto barely mentions discrimination of any kind, stating only that the party would “work closely with the Equality & Human Rights Commission to raise awareness and prevent discrimination in terms of access to employment”. However, there is a welcome pledge to “review the current levels of employment tribunal fees implemented by the UK government, whose high costs prevent workers from getting access to justice”.

Money

Our two proposals were:

  • Immediately restore the real value of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay, lost as a result of the one per cent cap on the annual uprating since 2013, and set out a programme of annual increases to raise such pay to at least the minimum wage within ten years; and
  • Enhance the potential of Universal Credit to ensure that work really does pay for all working families.

Sadly the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Ukip manifestos give the rate at which maternity, paternity and parental leave is paid no more attention than they do the leave itself, though the Green Party does at least say it would “restore the link between state benefits and earnings, [and] ensure state benefits rise as fast as prices or wages (whichever grows more)”. Again, this is disappointing. At £139.58 per week, statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay equates to just 57 per cent of the adult national minimum wage (£243.75 for a 37.5-hour week, at £6.50 per hour), just 47 per cent of the Living Wage (£294.37 for a 37.5-hour week, at £7.85 per hour outside London), and a mere 27 per cent of the median gross weekly earnings of full-time employees (£518 in April 2014). Getting by on such a low income would be challenging at the best of times, but is especially hard when bearing all the additional costs that come with the birth of a child.

On the issue of low pay more generally, the Green Party says it would “increase the minimum wage so that it is a living wage. We propose a minimum wage target for everyone who is working in the UK of £10 per hour by 2020. In 2015, this would mean a minimum wage of £8/10 per hour generally (and £9.40 in London), saving £2.4 billion a year in tax credits and generating an additional £1.5 billion a year in income tax and National Insurance.”  Similarly, Plaid Cymru pledges to “increase the minimum wage to be the same level as the Living Wage over the next Parliament”, benefiting “more than 250,000 workers” in Wales.

The SNP says it would “vote to increase the minimum wage to £8.70 by 2020”, and that it would “support measures to extend the Living Wage across the UK” (the Scottish Government is already a Living Wage employer). Ukip has no target for the minimum wage rate, but – like the Conservatives – pledges to raise the income tax personal allowance to “at least £13,000” so as to “take those on the minimum wage out of tax altogether”. And Nigel Farage’s party promises to “enforce the minimum wage and reverse the [Coalition’s] cuts in the number of minimum wage inspectors”.

On Universal Credit (UC), the Green Party pledges to “halt implementation of the UC programme and carry out a thorough review of it structure and implementation, including the treatment of earned income, and removing conditionality”. The SNP also pledges to “halt the roll out of UC”, stating that “the current tapers for UC have been set too low, which means claimants will still be caught in the benefits trap, with clear financial disincentives in place for work … there should be an increase in the work allowance, to deliver a significant boost to the incomes of people moving into work”. And the Plaid Cymru manifesto states that “the UC system should not be implemented until a fully independent and comprehensive review is carried out”. The Ukip manifesto makes no mention of Universal Credit.

Childcare infrastructure

Our two proposals were:

  • Appoint a cabinet-level minister for childcare, to lead on developing a new national strategy aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years; and
  • Appoint a minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the supply of affordable and appropriate childcare for disabled children.

Childcare is the one issue mentioned in all four manifestos. The Green Party has the boldest ambition, with a pledge to “provide a comprehensive, nationwide system of good-quality pre-school early education and childcare, free at the point of delivery”. This would involve “building a free but voluntary universal education and childcare service for all children from birth until compulsory education age, which we would raise to 7 years”, and the party would “ensure that the system includes children’s centres for the very youngest children and their parents”. However, it is far from clear how the estimated £27 billion cost over five years would be funded.

The SNP manifesto sets out a more modest pledge – similar to that of the Conservatives and Labour – to “build on [the Scottish Government’s] current commitment to 600 hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds and eligible 2 year olds” by “almost doubling the number of free hours to 30 hours a week of free childcare by the end of the next Scottish Parliament”.  Plaid Cymru manages only a very general promise to “aim to provide flexible and affordable childcare, particularly in deprived areas” and – while its manifesto sets out a “vision for childcare [of] a system where parents, teachers, schools, nurseries, children’s centres, local authorities, childcare providers and businesses all work together to make provision as affordable, flexible , available and as high-quality as possible” – Ukip promises only that it would “initiate a full review of childcare provision”.

While the Green Party pledges to “recognise the rights of children who are disabled, and their families, in education, the transition to adult life, [and] in childcare”, the Plaid Cymru manifesto is the only one of the seven we have examined over these two blog posts to specifically address the particularly acute childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children, stating: “We will help families with disabled children to be able to afford childcare and improve the availability of childcare for children with disabilities”.

Whoever forms the new government after 7 May, we at Working Families will be working hard to persuade ministers to follow this laudable lead.

Manifesto 2015: how do the Liberal Democrats measure up?

By Richard Dunstan, Working Families Blog Editor

Last week, the Liberal Democrats issued their pre-manifesto for the May 2015 General Election. While the some 300 policy pledges in the pre-manifesto will be debated and voted on by party members at their conference in Glasgow early next month, the 80-page document provides a first opportunity to assess the likely policy pledges of one of the three main parties against our own ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, issued back in May this year.

In this context, the two most eye-catching proposals are 15 hours a week of free childcare for parents of all two-year-olds, and an increase in new fathers’  entitlement to statutory paid paternity leave, from two weeks to six weeks.

Childcare

On childcare, the pre-manifesto states that the “aim [is] to make 20 hours of free childcare a week available for all parents with children aged from two to four, and all working parents from the end of paid maternity leave (nine months) to two years, by 2020” and to “start by providing 15 hours a week of free childcare to the parents of all two-year-olds” with the £800m cost to be met “by cancelling the ineffective Conservative plan to introduce a marriage allowance into the tax system, [and] then prioritise 15 hours free childcare to all working parents with children aged between nine months and two years”.

The document also pledges the Liberal Democrats to completing “the introduction of tax-free childcare, which will provide support to parents of up to £2,000 for each child and include childcare support in Universal Credit, refunding 85% of childcare costs to make sure work pays for low earners”.

This unquestionably amounts to a bold move in the childcare political bidding war, which has been hotting up in recent months. However, it still falls a long way short of the “national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years” that we call for in our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto. And the pledge to continue with the tax-free childcare scheme is disappointing. In the words of Working Families helpline adviser Will Hadwen:

The tax-free childcare scheme and Universal Credit are inequitable in the way that they treat periods of work. Tax-free childcare is not means-tested, but Universal Credit is. The barriers to parents deciding which of the two to go for remain high, and it is not at all clear how or where they will get support to make that decision.

Neither the Coalition, nor now the Liberal Democrats themselves, seem to acknowledge that the conditions for each scheme may be met at different times by the same families. That is, one month Universal Credit may be the best bet for a family and then, a few months later, they would be better off with tax-free childcare. A commitment to one system of help for childcare, outside Universal Credit, would reduce complexity and increase incentives to work.

It is also deeply disappointing that the pre-manifesto contains no reference to – let alone a specific policy pledge to address – the especially harsh childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children, the subject of a recent parliamentary inquiry.

Paternity leave

The promise of six weeks of paid paternity leave is certainly very welcome, although it is not clear whether this ‘use-it-or-lose it’ entitlement would have to be used in the first two months after the birth. And it is disappointing that this increased leave entitlement would still be paid at the current, ludicrously low statutory rate.

All the evidence from other countries is that fathers take full advantage of paternity leave only when it is well-paid. And far too many men are not even taking their current entitlement of two weeks. Just a few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, noted that “a quarter of new fathers take only a week or less of paternity leave”. Those fathers won’t suddenly take more paternity leave just because more is available, if it’s paid at the same low rate as now.

In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we call for paid paternity leave to be increased from two weeks to six, but “with four of the six weeks available to be taken at any point during the child’s first year”. We also call for this to be a Day One right, and for all six weeks of this leave to be paid at 90 per cent of earnings.

Other issues

Elsewhere, the pre-manifesto contains welcome – if somewhat vague and strangely half-hearted – pledges to  “look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage … and improve enforcement action”, to ensure that the Living Wage is “paid by all central government departments and executive agencies from April 2016 onwards”, and to “clamp down on any [sic] abusive practices in relation to zero hours contracts”.

However, there is little other than mandatory pay audits to tackle pay inequality and sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace, and no mention of reforming the Coalition’s controversial employment tribunal fees. With the number of new cases down by 70%, it is now clear the fees amount to a charter for dinosaur and rogue employers, and the case for reform is overwhelming. In our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto, we suggest that the fees “must be scrapped”.

Perhaps in Glasgow next month, the party’s rank-and-file members will propel at least some of these issues into the final manifesto for May 2015.

[In forthcoming posts, we will be looking at how the likely manifesto pledges of the Conservative, Labour and other parties measure up to our ‘Families & Work’ manifesto.]

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.