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Employers must stop penalising women for having children

Why extending redundancy protections for expectant mothers and new parents is long overdue.

By Dan Jarvis

In the middle of the pandemic Natasha was made redundant. She was pregnant and the only member on her team to be laid off. In the middle of the chaos and disruption of 2020, with a baby on the way, Natasha was unemployed without the means to pay her bills. A few weeks later she suffered a miscarriage.

It is difficult to imagine the pain and injustice Natasha had to endure. The loss of a baby is traumatic, and the effects are devastating. When she finally felt ready to take her employer to tribunal for maternity discrimination, she was told it was too late and she should have to have applied in the three-month window (there are strict time limits for making a claim to an employment tribunal).

No one should be penalised for having children, but too often women are. In 2016 an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) survey commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that three in four women said they had a negative or discriminatory experience in pregnancy and maternity. Around 54,000 women a year lose their job simply because they are pregnant.

Six years on, no action has been taken to tackle the industrial-scale discrimination women face. The government has consistently said it will address this issue, with promises to extend redundancy protections to the period of pregnancy and following a parent’s return to work (currently protections apply during maternity leave, meaning new mothers get first refusal on any suitable alternative vacancy). But it’s never happened.

In October 2019 the Queen’s Speech pledged to meet these commitments through an Employment Bill. The bill vanished without trace, and then the pandemic hit. The crisis amplified and exacerbated every pre-existing inequality and pushed even more women out of work. Discrimination was rife pre-pandemic, but mothers were one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to have lost or quit their job since the lockdown began. Women also dominate industries that have been slower to recover.

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Today, people are facing a cost-of-living crisis of epic proportions. Extortionate childcare costs, soaring inflation and the scarcity of affordable housing mean that raising a family has never been harder and the decision to start or grow a family is becoming increasingly unaffordable. What new parents need at the very least is job security, yet too often they are still the first to lose their jobs.

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This is why I have introduced a bill in parliament to extend redundancy protections for expectant mothers and new parents. It will include parents taking adoption or shared parental leave and help to stop them being the first to be laid off on their return to work. It’s a long overdue step towards guaranteeing families more dignity in the workplace.

On its own this piece of legislation is no silver bullet, but I’m proud that my party would build on this commitment in government. Labour’s New Deal for Working People would make it unlawful to dismiss a woman who is pregnant, including six months after her return. We would also extend paternity and maternity leave and review the current botched shared parental leave offer.

For now we must do what we can to protect those most vulnerable to redundancy. My bill returns to the House of Commons for its final debate on Friday. We have an opportunity to make a change for tens of thousands of working parents and parents-to-be.

Today (3 February), Dan Jarvis’ cleared the Commons after being forward for its final debate.

[See also: How the UK’s only feminist party came out in favour of transgender self-ID]

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