An article challenging the prejudices and preconceived notions surrounding the employment rights of pregnant workers is always welcome. In a recent article, Martin Edwards argues that employment law has become 'shrouded by an extraordinary number of myths and misconceptions.'
In a recent article, Martin Edwards correctly observes that 'we are witnessing a shift in the legal regime, driven by the Coalition's belief that 'red tape' is deterring employees from taking on staff and holding back growth'. Edwards - and a multitude of other writers - can see plenty of ground from which to criticize this thinking. It is, after all, a view which is not evidence-based.
But Edwards is also criticizes the critics. He particularly targets Zoe Williams of The Guardian who, he asserts, has 'padded out' her argument with 'wild and unfounded claims'.
Her article discussed the problem of pregnancy discrimination. In it, she argued that we shouldn't, 'buy the line that pregnant women are hard to sack - they've never been easier to sack.' She also argued that only a minority of these pregnant women seek legal redress, citing data from the 2005 Equal Opportunities Commission's investigation into pregnancy discrimination. According to Edwards, her comments are 'so far from the truth as to be embarrassing'.
The 2005 Equal Opportunity Commission investigation mapped the nature and incidence of pregnancy discrimination. (The final report, methodology and supporting research are available here.)
It found that half of all pregnant women in the workplace experience pregnancy discrimination in some form. Of these, 30 000 each year lost their jobs as a result. That's just under 8% of all pregnant women at work who were sacked or harassed out of their employment.
Of those who lost their jobs, only 3% took their cases to the employment tribunal. 8% of the total took some type of formal action, such as commencing a grievance. More than 70% did absolutely nothing to assert their rights, not even seeking advice.
All in all, it does sound rather like Zoe Williams was correct. The legal protections available to women are academic if most people can't test them in court.
Working in an organization providing pregnant women and new mothers with advice on their rights at work, the evidence is pretty clear to us. In the last twelve months, demand for Maternity Action's services has more than doubled, and is continuing to rise.
The stories we are hearing are getting worse. The treatment of women is more aggressive and the discrimination is more blatant.
A woman who told her employer that she was pregnant had the size of her team halved at the same time as her workload doubled. She had a miscarriage. When she became pregnant a second time, her employment responded in exactly the same way. Rather than risk another miscarriage, she quit. She took no legal action.
In the last few months, we have seen the announcement of £1200 fees to take a pregnancy discrimination case to the employment tribunal. Health and safety guidance has been rewritten to water down the already weak protections for pregnant women and new mothers at work.
These come on top of cuts to Legal Aid and cuts to funding for advice services.
Maternity Action, and a coalition of parents groups, health organisations, advice services and unions, has launched a campaign, Valuing Maternity, to defend maternity rights and protect maternity services.
We can't agree more with Edwards on this conclusion: 'What employers and employees alike need is for the future of employment law to start with an accurate assessment of its current scope'. Therefore, from those who are trying to support pregnant women and their families, we know it isn't mythology.
Follow Rosalind Bragg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MaternityAction