Earlier this year the Equality and Human Rights Commission, finally published their robust and detailed report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK. It stated that approximately 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs from the point they announce that they are pregnant. This figure does not account for the women who are self employed, women who are demoted or those who are ignored for promotion, and it does not account for the women who are unknowingly penalised for being of childbearing age. This shocking figure of 54,000 is just the tip of the iceberg.
On International Women's Day, March 2015 I launched a project and campaign called Pregnant Then Screwed, designed to expose this systemic problem, it is a safe place for women to tell their stories in their own words. This makes for heartbreaking but insightful reading. There are various structures that prevent women from challenging pregnancy discrimination effectively but the two worst offenders are the introduction of fees and the 3 month time limit. As the law stands, from the point at which you have been subjected to any kind of workplace discrimination you have three months to take a case to Tribunal. For maternity discrimination, those three months usually come at a time when you are exhausted, lacking in confidence and knee-deep in baby poo. Making your lunch every day can feel like climbing Mount Everest; masterminding an Employment Tribunal would feel nigh-on impossible.
Since the Conservative Party introduced new fees for employees to use the Tribunal system, there has been a 79% decrease in Employment Tribunals: many discrimination cases are very hard to prove, so when you have more to lose financially, you are far less likely to take the risk, especially if you are pregnant or have just had a baby and are in a vulnerable position whilst needing to do everything in your power to provide for your family.
When I was 4 months pregnant I was sacked by my main employer. They sacked me by voicemail 2 days after I had informed them that I was pregnant. Initially I was shocked, terrified and hurt, slowly those emotions turned to outrage. I looked for advice but to no avail and with no knowledge of my statutory rights and no prior experience of attempting to navigate the complex legal world, I almost gave up. Finally I found a law firm who suggested they write a letter to the company demanding compensation. The letter cost me £250. The company just threw it in the bin. The next option was to take them to Tribunal, the law firm informed me that it would likely be a long and painful process and I would need to pay more money upfront. I was 4 months pregnant and unemployed, despite the discrimination being glaringly obvious, there was still a chance I could lose the case, discrimination is difficult to prove. Simultaneously I discovered my pregnancy was high risk. The doctor told me not to get stressed. Ultimately I was left with no choice but to walk away, I had been kicked in the teeth by my employer then screwed over by a legal system that was meant to facilitate justice for everyone, not just the elite.
The Ministry of Justice committee review of fees for employment tribunals is currently underway and they are requesting evidence to support the reduction or abolition of fees. From my own personal experience and from the hundreds of stories I have received through Pregnant Then Screwed I am very aware of the detrimental impact fees are having on women across the UK. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is on the increase (figures have doubled in the last 10 years), the introduction of a fee structure makes justice unimaginable for those without the funds to support it. If we let this pass without a dramatic change, discrimination against pregnant women and women with children will continue to take place behind closed doors, crushing women's confidence, stagnating their abilities and costing the economy untold amounts through lost potential.
I recently submitted evidence to the Justice Committee to say that I have received 32 stories from women who have been denied justice due to Employment Tribunal Fees. You can see the reports here
If you have any evidence to support a change in the fee structure then please submit this information to the Justice Committee
This blog post was first written for the Fawcett Society