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Pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace

Here we look at your protection against pregnancy discrimination at work as well as redundancy during pregnancy, maternity leave or when returning to work

Watch Maternity Action's video which explores some of the discriminatory treatment women experience at work during pregnancy and how to discuss issues with employers in an informal meeting.

Under The Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate, or treat workers unfavourably because of their pregnancy or pregnancy-related illness, or because they have given birth recently or are breastfeeding. This covers the protected period which ends when maternity leave ends or when an employee returns to work.

Unfortunately, discrimination in the workplace, in particular pregnancy discrimination cases, is a reality despite maternity employment rights and laws on pregnancy at work. A report released by The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in July 2015 found that around 54,000 new mums lose their jobs across the UK every year. The research showed that one in five new mums experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave. Furthermore, one in 10 said they were treated worse by their employer when they returned to work after having a baby, and 7% revealed they were put under pressure to hand in their notice.

If you think you’ve been treated unfavourably because of your pregnancy, pregnancy-related illness or right to statutory maternity leave, this could be a case of discrimination.

What is pregnancy-related discrimination?

There are four main types of discrimination:

1. Direct discrimination: when someone is treated unfairly or unfavourably because of their pregnancy, due to being on maternity leave or because they are breastfeeding. For example, being refused a job, a promotion or being sidelined at work.

2. Indirect discrimination: this can occur where a workplace rule, practice or procedure is applied to all workers, but disadvantages people who are pregnant, breastfeeding or on maternity leave. For example, refusing to consider a request for part-time work or asking all employees to work set hours.

3. Harassment: when unwanted conduct related to a person's pregnancy, maternity leave, or breastfeeding causes a distressing, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

4. Victimisation: treating an employee unfairly because they have made or supported a complaint about pregnancy, maternity or breastfeeding discrimination.

Your employer should ensure they have rules in place which are designed to prevent discrimination in recruitment, determining pay, training and development, selection for promotion, discipline and grievances and redundancy selection.

Redundancy while pregnant or during maternity leave

When a genuine redundancy situation occurs - and where there is no suitable alternative work available for those on maternity leave - women can lawfully be made redundant, providing that pregnancy and maternity is not the reason for redundancy.

The law says:

  • During the protected period (the beginning of pregnancy to the end of maternity leave) unfavourable treatment of a woman because she is pregnant or on maternity leave is unlawful.
  • A woman on maternity leave has the right to return to the same job before she left. If this isn’t possible at the end of 52 weeks maternity leave then a suitable alternative must be found.
  • Selecting a woman for redundancy because of her pregnancy, maternity leave or a related reason is automatically unfair dismissal as well as being unlawful discrimination.
  • Failure to consult a woman on maternity leave about possible redundancy is likely to be unlawful discrimination.
  • A woman made redundant while on maternity leave must be offered any suitable alternative vacancy. If there is one available she doesn't need to apply for it. If you are not offered a suitable alternative vacancy you may have a claim for unfair dismissal.

Find out what to do if you think you are facing an unfair dismissal during pregnancy, maternity leave or on your return to work below.

Making a claim of pregnancy or maternity discrimination

As the first step, if you can, talk to your employer, line manager, union or HR department to try to sort out the matter informally. It is important to maintain good communication with your employer for as long as possible and try to resolve any disputes as amicably as possible. It is a good idea to get information on your rights to show your employer, particularly if your employer has not had much experience of dealing with pregnancy, maternity leave or breastfeeding at work. If you are unable to resolve a problem at work you can start by making a more formal complaint using your employer’s grievance procedure. The organisations listed below may be able to help you get information for your employer and help you resolve the dispute.

If you feel you have been discriminated against, you will be able to bring a claim to an Employment Tribunal. You have to pay a fee to bring a tribunal claim and fees are high for discrimination claims but you may get all or part of your fees waived if you are on a low income. You will need to fill out a fee remission form.

If you are thinking of bringing a claim in an Employment Tribunal you must contact ACAS first to start Early Conciliation. ACAS will contact you and your employer and see if you would like to try to settle the dispute. If you are unable to reach an agreement ACAS will issue a certificate and you can bring your claim in an Employment Tribunal. There are strict time limits for bringing a claim. You usually have three months (less one day) from the date of dismissal, redundancy or discriminatory act to bring a claim. Time limits are very rarely extended so it is very important to make your claim on time.

You might find it useful to watch Maternity Action's which explores the process of pursuing a grievance.

Your breastfeeding rights at work

Your rights are also protected if you want to continue breastfeeding when you return to work. For instance, your employer needs to ensure that you have access to somewhere safe to rest, which should include a space to lie down. Your employer is also required to take action to ensure that the environment is safe for you to work by making reasonable adjustments to your working conditions or hours of work. Read more about your rights in our article here.

Updated April 2016

Further information

A new awareness initiative has been launched by the EHRC to reduce pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. The new initiative is called #worksforme.

Find out more about Employment Tribunals here.

If you feel that your organisation is treating you badly because you are pregnant, you have taken maternity leave or you are breastfeeding then free legal advice and support is available from the organisations listed below.

ACAS advice on employment rights and Early Conciliation 0300 123 1100

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Code of Practice on Employment, chapter 8

Equality Advisory Support Service advice on discrimination and human rights 0808 800 0082

Gov.uk Guide to bringing a claim in an Employment Tribunal

Employers guide to maternity and parental rights

Call the Maternity Action helpline on 0845 600 8533 for information on maternity rights.

Working Families helpline: 0300 012 0312 or email: advice@workingfamilies.org.uk

Yesslaw: advice and help with resolving disputes at work 020 3701 7530/7531 or email info@yesslaw.org.uk