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It is estimated that 54,000 women have suffered dismissal or discrimination due to pregnancy or maternity leave. The government has begun a 10-week consultation to investigate ways to combat these staggering figures.
The law provides protection for employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave. The Employment Rights Act, and the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations, provide employees with the right to maternity leave and the right to receive maternity pay.
The Equality Act defines pregnancy as a protected characteristic. This means employers must not discriminate against women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. For example, employers should not discipline employees for sickness absence that is related to their pregnancy. Employees on maternity leave also have protection against dismissal and redundancy. If an employer dismisses an employee who is pregnant or on maternity leave, or fails to offer an available alternative role during a redundancy exercise, the employee could be entitled to bring discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.
Sadly, even with these laws in place, discrimination still happens. Returning mothers are often overlooked for promotions due to childcare considerations or made redundant without taking into account their pregnancy. A survey carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found 77% of mothers had experienced potentially discriminatory treatment during their pregnancy, maternity leave, or after they returned to work. Of the employers that responded, 70% thought that women should declare whether they were pregnant at the interview, and 25% thought it was reasonable to ask candidates during the interview if they intended to have children (or more children).
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has initiated a consultation on extending redundancy protection for women and new parents. The consultation will focus on whether it has become necessary to extend the protection against redundancy, which currently protects women during their period of maternity leave, for a further six-month period after maternity leave has finished.
The consultation period finishes on 5th April 2019. After this period the government is likely to publish a report and may propose amendments to the current regulations.
We regularly advise individuals on their legal rights with regards to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We also advise employers on how to manage the maternity leave process. If you are unsure of your obligations towards pregnant employees, it is important to take legal advice at an early stage.