Out of sight, out of mind. That seems to be the case for mothers returning from maternity leave who, according to reports, are increasingly being singled out for redundancy in the economic downturn.
So what can you do if your boss targets you, just because you are a new mum? “It’s extraordinarily difficult to pursue an action for pregnancy discrimination,” reckons Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action.
“Whilst the law is clear, it’s often very difficult to prove. Plus, women who are in the late stages of pregnancy, or at home looking after a baby, or who have just returned to work, simply don’t have the time or energy.”
Maternity Alliance is part of a new campaign – the Alliance against Pregnancy Discrimination – which also includes Citizens Advice, Working Families, Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society and the single parents group Gingerbread. They all report an alarming rise in the number of women claiming that they have been victims of pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace.
Working Families’ helpline has received 198 calls this year, including at least one a month “where a woman is dismissed on, or soon after, the day she informs her employer of her pregnancy”.
Case worker Vanessa Wheeler reports the case of a young single mum who was told maternity leave had been scrapped and that “as a concession” she could take two weeks’ annual leave following the birth. She didn’t take action fearing she would lose her job.
Sophie, 39, worked at a well-known media company for almost two decades and, as business director, held one of the most senior posts.
In March she returned to work after giving birth to Charlie. “I was ready to go back after 11 months’ leave. I had a nanny and my four-year-old daughter was in full-time nursery,” she says.
“On my first day back my boss said he’d meet me in the bar … all very media. Instead of going to my office, he walked me into a glass-sided room in human resources in full view of everyone. Then the penny dropped.”
Sophie was told she was on notice of redundancy. “Out of a department of about 90, I was the only person made redundant. I happened to be the only person on maternity leave,” she says.
Her employer put her forward for two jobs, neither of which were suitable – in one case, the prospective employer cancelled the interview half an hour beforehand and appeared to forget a second, rescheduled one. The second job was, as she puts it, “totally inappropriate” and the offer only made after she was made redundant. “They decided to get rid me after 19 years’ unblemished record. The treatment was appalling. My overall feeling is one of anger and sadness.”
Camilla Palmer, an expert in discrimination law at Leigh Day & Co (also a member of the Alliance) is advising Sophie: “The question for women like her is what would have happened had she not been on maternity leave?
“If she would not have been made redundant but for her maternity leave, this will be discrimination.
“The courts have also said that if there is a failure to consult a woman because she is on maternity leave, that in itself is discrimination.”
Current legal protections are, in theory at least, “very strong”. But as Cathy Rogan, rights adviser for Working Families, says, there are two significant difficulties – women have to prove discrimination and they have to enforce those rights.
Proving discrimination is often problematic “particularly where it amounts to snide comments and a gradual freezing out”, says Rogan. “If you suspect this, keep notes and talk to your employer.”
If that doesn’t work, there is always the employment tribunal. Take speedy advice from an adviser who specialises in maternity discrimination. You have to bring a claim within three months (less a day) of the act complained of. There is no legal aid to pay for a lawyer to represent you (although there might be for initial advice).
A good place to start is the Working Families helpline (workingfamilies.org.uk, 0800 013 0313) or the Equality and Human Rights Commission (www.equalityhumanrights.com).
Citizens advice and law centres also have specialist employment advisers.
And check your home contents insurance to see if you have legal expense cover. Under such policies, you have the legal right to instruct your own solicitor.
As taken from The Gaurdian newspaper