A new bill was reintroduced in parliament this week that aims to give pregnant women and new mothers added legal protections against redundancy.
This is against a backdrop of dismay from campaigners over the numbers of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave being lost to the workforce during the Covid-19 crisis.
Maria Miller MP’s Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill was put to the House of Commons as a private member’s bill and has attracted cross-party backing.
Miller’s proposals aim to give women protection from redundancy when pregnant, in the six months following their child’s birth and during maternity leave.
She said: “Every year, 53,000 women leave their jobs when pregnant because of how they’ve been treated. My bill strengthens existing laws to better protect pregnant women and new mothers by prohibiting employers from making them redundant.”
Miller also explained, in an article for the Telegraph, the pandemic had shown that “too many employers [failed] to provide the basic protection pregnant women and new mums are entitled to by law”. Covid-19 meant that the protections for workers needed to have “real teeth”, she said.
“We need all employees to be treated fairly, on their merit, not discriminated against simply because they are pregnant or new mums,” she wrote.
Women are overrepresented in sectors particularly hard hit by hospitality, leisure, tourism and the arts – which, say campaigners, makes it even easier to single out pregnant women as targets for redundancy. A study by PwC published in May found 78% of those who had already lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic were women.
Among groups supporting the bill was Maternity Action, which said hundreds of women had contacted the charity’s advice line about threats to their jobs. Its director, Rosalind Bragg, said: “The current law on redundancy and maternity is complex, poorly understood and difficult to enforce. It is desperately unfair that mothers are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, having to battle unfair redundancies as well as taking on an increased share of domestic work.”
Bragg said it was common for women to find that the individual covering their maternity leave was being kept on while their role was made redundant, “a classic case of unfair and unlawful redundancy” and that it was impossible for women in this situation to devote energy and finances to pursuing employment tribunal claims. She added that employers wrongly perceived pregnant women to be more expensive than other employees – with many employers appearing oblivious to the fact the government pays for statutory maternity pay.
Campaigners fear that as furlough winds down over the next few months women will be disproportionately targeted for redundancy.
Pregnant then Screwed founder Joeli Brearley, reinforced campaigners’ view that unless there was enhanced protection, pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave would be “collateral damage” as the UK entered recession. She said: “Pregnant women are viewed as distracted and that they can’t be committed to their job if they are about to take some time out of their career to care for a new baby. When women return from maternity leave, they are also extremely vulnerable as the business has been operating without them for the last nine months so they’re not at the forefront of an employer’s mind.”
Brearley proposed that businesses could support mothers by setting quotas for women and BAME staff at all levels, and by introducing increased flexibility to enable staff to juggle work and caring responsibilities.
The bill offers similar redundancy protections covering women in Germany but failed to complete its passage through parliament before the end of the session in 2019. Miller successfully reintroduced it this week as a 10-minute rule bill, a type of private members’ bill, but now must wait until 16 October for a second reading. This type of bill allows a backbench MP to make his or her case for a new bill in a speech lasting up to 10 minutes.
Among groups supporting Miller is the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, Working Families, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and Usdaw.
A 2019 study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that one in nine women have been fired or made redundant, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job, after going back to work from maternity leave. The report estimated that about 54,000 women each year may lose their role at work because of pregnancy or maternity.
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