Today I will join forces at an event in parliament with charity Maternity Action, Grazia magazine, shopworkers’ union USDAW, and women who have experienced maternity discrimination at work, to discuss how we can tackle this deeply worrying, and growing, problem.
Latest figures show that a staggering three out of four working mothers experience some type of discrimination in their working lives. Over half of all mothers say pregnancy and maternity leave had a negative impact on their career. Yet a majority of employers also say that supporting mothers in the workforce is good for business. It is in everyone’s interests that we fix this.
Very few women have the confidence, however, to speak out when treated unfairly. Just three per cent of mothers suffering discrimination went through their employer’s internal grievance procedure. And fees introduced by the coalition government, which mean it now costs up to £1200 to pursue a case to tribunal, are pricing mothers out of justice: fewer than one per cent of discrimination cases are now going to an employment tribunal. That gives the green light to a small group of unscrupulous employers to treat women unfairly in the workplace.
These problems are not going unnoticed, of course. In March, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report detailing the extent of pregnancy discrimination in the UK, and calling on government to act. But ministers seem strangely uninterested in, and unmoved by, the findings. Despite the report having been commissioned jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the government has been nearly silent about it – publishing it in the lowest key way, with just a few hours’ notice to stakeholders, who’d been awaiting its findings for months. Since then, there has been absolutely no sign of action from the government, though a very welcome digital campaign was launched last week by the EHRC – #PowertotheBump – to help expectant and new mothers know their rights at work, and have the confidence to stand up for them.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of interest from Ministers. The Tories have never been keen on extending and improving rights at work. Not content with introducing tribunal fees, the last government showed its contempt for workers’ rights by placing them at risk of its ‘Red Tape Challenge’. Nor are the Tories much concerned with gender equality – a staggering 86% of the cost of the cuts and changes to taxes and benefits has been borne by women. Last December the Tories voted against a Labour motion urging the government to conduct a cumulative gender impact analysis of their policies.
So it’s hard to feel confident that the Tory government will prioritise the rights of pregnant women and mothers. That is why the protection of employment rights that we gain from the European Union is so important. Over the years, trade unions and progressive politicians have campaigned hard in the EU to win many of the rights that have improved women’s working lives, and which now underpin UK legislation. It’s thanks to EU rules that alongside rights to maternity leave and pay, women also benefit from parental leave, paid holiday, equal pay, and protection of the rights of part-time workers, including pension rights.
A Tory government that shows so little concern for women’s equality can hardly be trusted to protect these rights were we to leave the European Union. But not only would these current rights be more precarious, women in the UK would not benefit from any future gains that others in Europe will receive. For example, a consultation has just begun at EU level on a new package of rights to improve work-life balance, including proposals for flexible working and stronger protections from dismissal for new mothers. If Britain votes to leave the EU, working women in the UK will miss out.
Equality sits at the heart of the EU’s founding treaties, and that is why the EU will always ensure women’s rights at work are protected, but women may not realise yet just how much is at stake in the EU referendum. So there’s one message I will be making crystal clear at the event in parliament today and that myself and Labour colleagues will be taking to women right across the country.
A vote to remain in the EU on 23 June is crucial for workers’ rights here in the UK. For working women, now and in the future, it’s absolutely essential.