Around one in 20 women were made redundant either while they were pregnant, during maternity leave or after returning to work, according to research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2016.
Although the law offers some protection from unfair redundancy, employers often ignore those protections or find ways to get around them.
Under Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Paternity Leave Regulations 1999, a woman on maternity leave must be offered any suitable alternative vacancy if her job is at risk of redundancy.
But this does not apply until the maternity leave period actually starts. This means that employers can avoid the impact of Regulation 10 by making the redundancy take effect before or after the maternity leave period.
So the government is looking at extending the protection of Regulation 10 for six months after a woman’s return from maternity leave.
Extending redundancy protection
In its submission to the consultation, Prospect’s legal team said women were particularly vulnerable in the period shortly after the return to work.
Although Regulation 10 provides additional protection at a time when women may not be in the workplace and recognises that the opportunity for proper consultation and the ability to look for alternative roles is limited, it is illogical that this protection only applies while the woman is on maternity leave.
Prospect also said Regulation 10 should apply during the pregnancy and to all those on maternity, paternity, adoption or other parental leave.
Changing working patterns
Pregnant workers, and those on maternity or parental leave, need stronger rights to return to work on part time hours, but retain their existing role and terms and conditions.
Many women experience resistance from their employers to reduce or change their hours of work on return.
It is fairly common for employers to only agree a request to reduce hours if the woman agrees to a lower graded role.
Prospect has had a number of recent cases where it has had to threaten, or bring, tribunal cases to assert a woman’s right to work part time.
These rights should be provided for other employees taking adoption, paternity, shared parental leave or parental leave – and should extend to same sex-couples and all atypical workers, including freelancers, casuals and temporary workers.
Prospect highlighted the system in Germany which makes it illegal for employers to make a pregnant woman or a new mother redundant except in very limited circumstances, such as the business going under.
Businesses would still have the freedom to make redundancies where it was essential to do so, but pregnant workers would have greater protection than under current UK legislation.
Dismissals and detrimental treatment
Greater transparency is needed around the extent of dismissals and detrimental treatment for pregnant women, those on maternity leave and those returning to work after a period of maternity or parental leave.
Government should adopt a system for employers to report on the number of dismissals and resignations of workers in these groups. This could be similar to the legislation on gender pay gap reporting.
The EHRC needs more funding and resources to monitor and enforce any new regulations.
Time limit for bringing tribunal claims
The time limit for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal should be extended to six months.
The three-month time limit to initiate claims is especially harsh for someone about to give birth or caring for a new child.
Although tribunals can exercise discretion and extend the time limit, they don’t often do so.
The increased time limit should be applied immediately, rather than waiting for a wider review.