18/01/2017 09:38 GMT | Updated 19/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Pregnancy Discrimination: The Government Is Sitting On Its Hands

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More than forty years since pregnancy discrimination became illegal, worrying attitudes remain. A quarter of employers think it's reasonable to ask women at interview about their plans to have children, and more than 4 in 10 say they are wary of taking on women of childbearing age.

At Maternity Action, we hear of women pressured by employers to miss essential ante-natal appointments, or harangued for taking an extra toilet break, or working in an environment that threatens their baby's health because their employer didn't bother to assess the risks and make simple changes. The biggest ever study into the experiences of pregnant women and workplace attitudes backs this up: 54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination.

Yesterday Maternity Action launched three short videos which we produced to help pregnant women understand their rights and feel confident communicating with their employers to tackle any issues at work. They're backed up by checklists and template letters for resolving common problems.

At the launch event in Parliament we heard from Marie, an USDAW shop steward, who helps pregnant women secure safe working environments. Ever wondered what happens between clicking your online choices and your groceries shop arriving at your door? "Pickers" collecting your shopping work 3am - 12noon with just a half hour break, sometimes in the icy temperatures of the freezer section, or lugging around heavy crates of beer, with an armband that flashes green, amber or red depending on whether their "pick rate" is acceptable. Pregnant workers are often expected to just get on with it, without any consideration for their health or the impact on their baby.

Women can be unaware of their rights to paid time off for ante-natal appointments, and that their employer has an obligation to make changes to their work patterns or tasks to ensure their health and safety is not compromised.

While Maternity Action helps thousands of women with online information and telephone advice, as a small charity we are only too aware of the huge unmet demand. Our resources are constrained and for every call we answer, more than 30 others can't get through.

With evidence that pregnancy discrimination is at shocking levels, and has almost doubled in a decade, the Government urgently needs to act. We have outlined the steps the Government needs to take, from high-profile leadership to practical help for employers, abolishing the employment tribunal fees that prevent dinosaur bosses being taken to task, and ensuring women have access to the advice and help they need.

Yet in the mêlée of Brexit preparations, the smoke signals from Government are not good. The Government's response to the EHRC research last year was under-whelming and completely failed to grasp the scale of the challenge. The Women & Equalities Select Committee produced an authoritative report into pregnancy discrimination in August. The Government's response to that is already 9 weeks overdue.

For all the Prime Minister's rhetoric on protecting workers' rights, the scandal is that while existing rights for pregnant women are being flouted, the Government is sitting on its hands.

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