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Midwives call for better protection for new mothers’ rights

Pregnant women and new mothers need more protection of their rights at work, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has said following the publication of a new report.

The report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee says that maternity discrimination has got worse in the past decade.

Joint research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, published in 2015, found that 50% of mothers felt pregnancy had had a negative impact on their career and 11% had lost their job.

In addition, 20% had experienced harassment or negative comments from employers and 10% had been discouraged from attending antenatal appointments.

Amy Leversidge, employment relations advisor at the RCM, said: “This is a very welcome report that if acted on will enhance further the protections and rights of pregnant women.

“Workplace pregnancy discrimination must not be tolerated and if the recommendations in this report are implemented they will go a long way to reducing this, and encouraging employers to recognise and support the rights of their employees.”

Recommendation for mothers to be protected from dismissal

The committee said that the government should implement a law, similar to one already used in Germany, which would limit the circumstances in which women who are pregnant or on maternity leave or who have given birth in the past six months can be dismissed.

It said that employers should be required to carry out individual risk assessments for staff who are pregnant or have new babies, and women should have an easy mechanism to complain if their health or the health of their baby is being put at risk at work.

The committee also found that the increasing numbers of women who are casual, agency or zero-hours workers were more likely to report a risk to their health when working while pregnant and less likely to challenge their employer.

It recommended the government extends maternity rights for workers, including guaranteeing the right to paid time off to attend antenatal appointments.

Rebecca Schiller, chief executive of the charity Birthrights, which campaigns for human rights in childbirth, said: “Women at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are at the greatest risk of having a stillbirth, dying in childbirth or suffering a range of complications. It is vital that the law protects these women - some of whom are in casual, agency work or on zero hours contracts where they are unable to access protected time for vital antenatal appointments. If vulnerable women cannot attend antenatal appointments because of concerns about missing work, this may put them and their babies at serious risk.

“Maternity rights are an important part of tackling health and social inequalities and ensuring that all women have access to safe, high-quality maternity care. Birthrights fully supports Women and Equalities Committee’s report and hope that steps to tackle discrimination are put in place with urgency.  Human rights in pregnancy and childbirth are of paramount importance and Birthrights believes that all women are entitled to respectful maternity care that protects their fundamental rights to dignity, autonomy, privacy and equality.”

Healthcare staff to provide women with advice

The report also said healthcare staff should be trained to provide pregnant woman with advice on their employment rights and have a comprehensive booklet to give them, including a tear-off sheet to give to their employers.

Improving maternity care is one of the priority areas for the NHS after the National Maternity Review found that half of all term stillbirths may have been avoided with better care.

It recommended that the government requires the Health and Safety Executive to play a greater role in ensuring employers provide a safe working environment for new and expectant mothers, carries out more research on rates of maternity discrimination, and sets target to reduce the problem within two years.

The committee also raised concerns about whether women’s rights will still be protected after the UK withdraws from the European Union, the source of many of the current laws. It said the government should make a statement of its intention to preserve those rights as an intermediary step.

Maria Miller MP, chair of the committee, said: “There are now record numbers of women in work in the UK. The economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums.”

Margot James, parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, added that it is “completely unacceptable” that pregnant women and new mothers are apparently being forced to quit their jobs because of outdated attitudes.

“Tackling this issue is a key priority of mine and this government and I would like to thank the committee for its important work,” she said. “We will consider its recommendations carefully and respond in due course."

 (Image c. David Jones from the Press Association)

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