Pregnant women and new mothers ‘laid off’ amid coronavirus crisis

·5 min read
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pregnant women and new mothers are being made redundant due to the coronavirus crisis, compounding existing patterns of pregnancy discrimination, campaigners have warned.

Charities told The Independent women are calling their advice lines in tears after being laid off due to employers singling out mothers-to-be or new mothers for redundancy.

Warnings come as leading national charities and trade unions lent their support to a bill drawn up by Conservative MP Maria Miller. The bill aims to bolster legal protections to safeguard pregnant women and new mothers from being made redundant.

The Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill, which has already attracted cross-party backing, will be put forward in the House of Commons on Wednesday as a Ten-Minute Rule Bill.

Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, a national pregnancy charity, told The Independent their helplines had been inundated with calls from despairing women.

She added: “During the lockdown, we had a lot of calls of women concerned about unsafe working conditions. But now on our advice lines, we have any number of women who are fearful of being laid off or who have been laid off. Many businesses are contracting and historically pregnant women have been among the first to be laid off. This is unlawful. But unfortunately, it is all too common.

“It is extraordinarily difficult for women to challenge an unfair redundancy. Pursuing an employment tribunal claim costs thousands of pounds and there is no certainty of success. Discrimination claims are notoriously difficult to pursue. Women contact us to find out what their entitlements are for redundancy or maternity pay. In many cases, it is obvious they have been unfairly selected for redundancy.

“Our advisors regularly deal with women who are deeply distressed by their circumstances. Many of them are crying. They need to be reassured and comforted as well as given legal advice. Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace was extremely high prior to lockdown, but the pandemic has brought into sharp relief how vulnerable pregnant women and new mothers are to discrimination and other unfair treatment.”

Ms Bragg said many of the women who call them have been in their jobs for some time and have demonstrated “loyalty to their employer” and worked hard in their role — adding they feel “desperately distressed” their boss has “discarded” them and are left worried about their financial security.

It is “extraordinarily difficult” to find a job when you are pregnant or when you are returning from maternity leave, she added.

She said it is “incredibly frustrating” the government has failed to act on its commitment to strengthening redundancy protections that were made back in 2017 — warning that in the absence of such protections many expectant mothers and new mothers are being forced out of their jobs at a time when it is very hard to find work.

“There is no excuse for the government’s delays, which have left pregnant women and new mothers at the mercy of ill-informed and unscrupulous employers as the economy contracts in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown,” Ms Bragg added. “Hundreds of mothers have contacted our advice lines about threats to their jobs. Many women have found that their maternity cover is being kept on while their role is made redundant, a classic case of unfair and unlawful redundancy. The situation will only worsen as the furlough scheme winds down over the summer.”

Ms Bragg noted employers wrongly perceive pregnant women to be more expensive than other employees — with many employers being oblivious to the fact the government pays for statutory maternity pay.

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, told The Independent pregnant women and new mothers are “the first to be pushed out of their job” when a business is making cuts.

“Pregnant women are viewed as distracted and that they can’t be committed to their job if they are about to take some time out of their career to care for a new baby,” she added. “When women return from maternity leave, they are also extremely vulnerable as the business has been operating without them for the last nine months so they’re not at the forefront of an employer’s mind. Without enhanced protection these vulnerable women will be collateral damage as our economy contracts and the country descends into recession. This will increase child poverty and set maternal employment rates back decades. Protecting their employment is good for the economy and it is good for families.’’

Campaigners previously reported women were being put on sick pay, annual leave, or not receiving any money whatsoever during lockdown because they are pregnant.

A study by PwC published in May found 78 per cent of those who have already lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are women.

While a recent London School of Economics study found women are more likely than men to lose their jobs in the impending recession because a greater proportion work in sectors that are predicted to be hardest hit.

Women are overrepresented in hospitality, leisure, tourism and the arts — industries where thousands of workers have been furloughed or laid off.

A study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which came out in 2019 found that one in nine women have been fired or made redundant, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job, after going back to work from maternity leave. The report estimated that about 54,000 women each year may lose their role at work because of pregnancy or maternity.

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