Tightening of pregnancy discrimination laws on the way? What employers need to know.

A new report by The Women and Equalities Committee has called for a tightening of the laws to protect pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace after what it called a ‘shocking’ increase in discrimination. The report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination found that some 77% of new and expectant mothers surveyed reported at least one potentially discriminatory or negative experience, with half of mothers reporting a negative impact on their career.

With women making up such a large proportion of the modern day workforce, the findings of this report are clearly a cause for concern. Business Minister Margot James has called for urgent action to tackle the issue and has outlined a number of proposed changes to the law to make it harder for employers to make women redundant during and after pregnancy.

Recommendations in the report included the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments to be extended to all workers after a short qualifying period, allowing further protection for women on casual or zero-hours contracts, and a potential extension on the three month time limit for pregnant women or new mothers to bring a case for discrimination or unfair dismissal in in the Employment Tribunal, along with a proposed reduction in tribunal fees.

As the law stands, it is illegal for employers to treat a woman unfavourably – for example, not giving her a promotion or reducing pay – because she’s pregnant or has recently given birth. This protection against discrimination stands from when an employee becomes pregnant to the end of their maternity leave.

Employers need to be fully aware of their obligations towards pregnant women and those women returning to work after having had a baby in order to avoid being accused of discrimination.

For example, pregnant employees must be allowed paid time off for ante-natal care, including any pregnancy-related medical appointments and any other antenatal or parenting classes as recommended by health professionals. A risk assessment must be carried out to identify any potential risks to the employee or her child.

The period of time during which a female employee is on maternity leave can be difficult for employers to manage. However, women are entitled to take maternity leave of up to 52 weeks. If the employee takes under 26 weeks of leave, employers must keep her job open and she is entitled to return to work under exactly the same terms and conditions. Should a period longer than this be taken, employers must offer a suitable alternative job should it not be practical to keep the same job open for the length of the maternity leave.

Clearly, pregnancy and maternity are sensitive issues and employers need to be fully versed on their legal obligations. Remember that any instance in which a pregnant employee or new mother is treated unfairly, whether by yourself as her employer or by her fellow colleagues, could be considered discrimination and could therefore lead to a claim.

For further advice in relation to managing female employees in relation to pregnancy or maternity, please contact either: Pam McColl or Amanda Isherwood or call us on 0161 312 1864