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31 August 2016

The legal loophole forcing pregnant women out of work

Zero-hours contracts are eroding hard-won maternity rights.

By Julia Rampen

In the last ten years, we have seen a feminist revival, a comprehensive Equality Act and the second female British prime minister in history. Women are making progress. 

That is, unless you’re a pregnant woman. A 2015 study found more new and expectant mothers reporting discrimination in the workplace than they had in 2005. More women said they were made redundant or felt forced to leave their job. Three-quarters had a negative experience at work because of their pregnancy.

But the offices of Britain slowly retreating into the smoke-filled fug of the seventies, where female workers spent the day dodging wandering hands. A report by the Women and Equalities select committee suggests this is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. 

When it comes to rights at work, some pregnant women are more equal than others. Those most likely to report a risk to their health at work were those working in poorly-paid sectors like caring, and those in unstable employment, such as zero-hours contracts. 

This is enshrined in the law. Women working for agencies or on zero-hours contracts do not have the same pregnancy and maternity entitlements as those who are classed as employees.  According to some legal and professional opinions, they have no rights at all. 

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Fair enough, you might say. If a temp announces her pregnancy halfway through a four-week stint, it’s a bit much to expect her temporary employer to cough up. She’s chosen a more flexible form of employment in the first place. 

The problem is, increasingly it’s not a choice. Over the last ten years, according to Citizens Advice, there has been a 58 per cent increase in people taking temporary jobs “because they are unable to find permanent work”. 

The influence of contract type means that, even within the same glossy corporate building, two pregnant women can experience utterly different treatment. Scarlet Harris of the TUC told the committee: “In some larger employers you will see good practices happening among professional women at the top, but they might be large organisations with women agency workers working lower down who are not afforded the same rights at all and are treated very differently.”

Despite their contracts, temporary workers often do continue to work for the same company for months on end. On Mumsnet, a forum, women on zero-hours contracts discussed when to reveal the news to their employer. One user wrote: 

“I was on a zero-hour contract working for the company for six years. [I] have had a few different contracts over the years, and had a quite physical and sometimes dangerous job so had to tell my boss really early. 

“I was eventually given no hours at all in the time they count maternity pay from.”

The woman, who had worked 14 hours a day at times, had to rely on using up her paid holidays, and statutory maternity pay. She did not return to her job.

In theory, zero-hours contract workers who resemble full-time employees can challenge their employers in court. But the committee found that pregnant women were put off from going to employment tribunals by the short deadline and recently-introduced fees. On Mumsnet, one pregnant worker gave the idea short shrift. She wrote: 

“Those protections that women fought and died for have gone along with fixed contracts.

“We have no protection – heaps of people have come online and written about being shafted after announcing pregnancy. They have been seriously let down by everyone and they have been unable to ‘prove’ that their hours are reduced due to their pregnancy.”

In other words, we have not gone back in time. This is the era of the disposable workforce, where pregnant women can quietly be discarded as their due date nears. If MPs want to prevent the trend of discrimination getting worse, they should close the legal zero-hours loophole first.