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  1. Politics
  2. Feminism
15 March 2017

The government still turns a blind eye to the treatment of mothers in the workplace

Maternity discrimination is just one example of the government turning a blind eye to the condition of women, says Sarah Champion.

By Sarah Champion

Today my colleague Sharon Hodgson MP will be leading a debate in Parliament on the scale of maternity discrimination in 2017.

Labour is campaigning strongly to protect mums at work.

According to the government’s own figures, up to 54,000 women every year are forced out of their jobs through pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination. The sheer scale of the problem is a cause for alarm.

This figure is nearly double the number of maternity discrimination cases when a similar study was conducted over ten years ago.

It is a problem that is getting measurably worse.

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One woman has bravely spoken to me about her experience of maternity discrimination in her previous workplace. Amelia worked as an account holder at a media company based in London. When she fell pregnant she was told by her line manager to ‘keep it quiet’ if she wanted to stand any chance of promotion or a pay rise.

This was the start of what would be a long series of events that would see Amelia treated unfairly because she’d decided to have a baby. After Amelia developed a pregnancy related illness, she was told that she would not be paid for any sick time due to the condition. Neither would she be paid for time off for antenatal appointments. Amelia became increasingly sidelined in her workplace and this added to her sense of worry and isolation. Like so many women in Amelia’s situation, her contract status was amended to make sure she would be classed as a part-time worker and she was threatened with her maternity pay and pregnancy related sick leave not being paid in full for this reason. Amelia and her partner had to leave their home due to the uncertainty and financial hardship this caused. They didn’t have the money to take the case to an employment tribunal which would have meant finding £1200.

Experiences like Amelia’s aren’t only examples of stress, anxiety and uncertainty for the pregnant woman and her family. It also costs employers, the government and individuals dearly in terms of financial loss.

Last year, research undertaken by the Equality and Humans Rights Commission found that the cost to employers of women being forced to leave their job as a result of maternity-related discrimination was an estimated £278m over the course of a year. As a result of lost tax revenue and increased benefit payments, the estimated cost to the government of maternity discrimination every year is up to £16.7m. The overall financial loss to individual women of negative or discriminatory experience ranged between £28.9m and £34.2m. This personal financial loss to women isn’t only a result of being unfairly managed out of the workplace, it also includes factors such as failing to gain a promotion, having their salary reduced, and not receiving non-salary benefits.

What is the government doing in light of the sheer scale and severity of this problem and the on-going costs to individuals, employers and the taxpayer?

Sadly, Theresa May’s actions so far show that, at best, her government is not taking this issue seriously and, at worst, they are exacerbating it through their own policies.

The first way the government have made the situation worse for working mums is through the introduction of £1,200 tribunal fees. This has seen fewer than 1% of maternity discrimination cases ending up in employment tribunals. Women are literally being priced out of their employment rights.

This gives the green light to unscrupulous employers, letting them know that they can treat mothers at work however they like and get away with it.

To address this Labour have made the important pledge of scrapping employment tribunal fees which would re-open access to recourse for mums unfairly dismissed or treated at work.

The second way the government has added fuel to the fire is through presiding over record numbers of exploitative zero hour contracts and an increasingly insecure, precarious labour market.

Despite government rhetoric to the contrary, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that women who are self-employed, or those on zero hour contracts, are having their rights at work properly protected. Women hired on a casual basis are often not entitled to paid time off for antenatal appointments; maternity or shared parental leave; the right to request flexible working; or protection against unfair dismissal.

Labour have pledged to ban exploitative zero hour contracts and make proper protections for mother’s at work a priority.

The government’s behavior and attitude towards of maternity discrimination is part of a wider pattern of them showing a willful lack of regard towards maintaining and promoting economic rights and freedoms for women.

Just last week, research I commissioned from the House of Commons library demonstrated that 86 per cent of net gains to the Treasury through tax and benefit measures had come from women.

From cuts to universal credit and the treatment of thousands of women born in the 1950s who have been left with a crisis in their retirement planning, to the booming rise in maternity discrimination; this government is systematically turning back the clock on gender economic equality.

The dithering on this issue from the government must stop. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, Labour will be highlight the true scale and impact of maternity discrimination, helping mother’s to know and understand their rights in the workplace and discussing solutions with women in our communities about how we can put a stop to this worrying practice.

The time has come for the government must outline a clear and credible strategy on how they plan to work with charities, employers and trade unions to tackle this issue once and for all.

If the government want to show British mums respect and appreciation this Mother’s Day, that’s how they can do it. 

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