Sunday 19 November 2017

Legal matters: Pregnancy discrimination

I'M pregnant and working on a long-term contract with a company. Everything has changed since I became pregnant. Three other employees are on maternity leave at present. My boss ranted at me about maternity leave three months ago, took away some of my duties last month and now I find he wants to reduce me to a three-day week. Can he do this? I think he just wants rid of me since he found out I was pregnant.

I BET those pictures of stress-free celeb pregnancies like Victoria Beckham and singer Pink must seem a million miles away to you!

The good news is that pregnant women and new mums have rights when things go wrong in the workplace. The relevant pieces of legislation are the Maternity Protection Acts and the Employment Equality Acts.

Pregnancy discrimination is a big issue. The Equality Authority handles 4,000 queries in relation to the Maternity Protection Acts on an annual basis and a further 3,000 inquiries relating to the Employment Equality Acts.

In June, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency published 'Pregnancy at Work: A National Survey'. The report revealed one-third of mothers who work during their pregnancy said they had experienced "unfair treatment".

Not only that, five per cent of the women surveyed said they were dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they had to leave their job.

First, what are the basic rights if you're pregnant? A pregnant employee is entitled to 26 weeks' consecutive maternity leave. You must inform your employer when you wish to take it as soon as it is reasonably practicable, but no later than four weeks before the beginning of the leave. A medical certificate is necessary for the duration of the leave.

New mothers are entitled to an additional unpaid 16 weeks' leave immediately after the end of the 26 weeks.

Again, this must be applied for no later than four weeks before the date it is due to begin.

There is also an entitlement to take time off to attend a set of antenatal classes and receive postnatal care without loss of pay.

The Rights Commissioner hears cases involving disputes over maternity leave. The Employment Equality Acts provide protection for women against discrimination in relation to pregnancy, maternity leave and other related matters.

The Act states: "Discrimination on a gender ground shall be taken to occur where, on a ground related to her pregnancy or maternity leave, a woman employee is treated contrary to any statutory requirement, less favourably than any other employee, is, has been or would be treated."

The discrimination can be direct or indirect. Direct means dismissing a woman because she is pregnant. Indirect discrimination occurs, for example, when a mum is treated differently to other workers or an employer fails to accommodate a mother's family commitments. This could be relevant to your experience.

Cases are heard by the Equality Tribunal and complaints must be lodged within six months of the incident happening.

One mother took her case to the Equality Tribunal after suffering harassment from her employers shortly after informing them she was pregnant. She worked as a crèche worker and claimed the owners criticised her cleaning, which was difficult for her to do while pregnant.

The equality officer hearing the case found that the extent of the discrimination warranted a €15,000 award.

Mary Kirwan is a barrister and can be contacted with any queries at mkirwan@independent.ie

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