Maternity leave - or just a pregnant pause?

A spate of recent tribunals suggests that maternity leave, far from being a right that can be taken for granted, is riddled with loopholes that allow employers to avoid re-employing new mothers. Kathy Marks reports,

Women now take maternity rights for granted, and employers, supposedly, accept them as a fact of life. Yet a steady trickle of disputes passing through industrial tribunals suggests that the law is still being flouted.

In a case being heard in Southampton this week, Nicola Macleod, a stable groom, is claiming that her former employers, a senior judge and his wife, reduced her wages when she became pregnant and then dismissed her. They, for their part, say that there was less work for Ms Macleod to do because they had sold some horses, and also that they paid her redundancy.

This particular case has yet to be resolved. But in general terms it seems baffling that, more than 20 years after the enactment of legislation on statutory maternity rights, there should still be any uncertainty in this area.

In fact, say equal opportunity campaigners, the law is riddled with loopholes and obscured by grey areas. Only last month, Lord Justice Browne-Wilkinson, who sits on the Employment Appeals Tribunal, described it as being "of inordinate complexity, exceeding the worst excesses of a taxing statute".

On the surface, the legal situation seems clear. Pregnant women are entitled to return to the same job, at the same status and salary, after a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave, irrespective of length of service. Up to 40 weeks may be taken if a woman has been employed for 27 months by the time of the birth.

Statutory maternity pay is set at 90 per cent of average salary for six weeks, and a flat rate of pounds 55.70 for a further 12 weeks.

But the "right to return" provision, according to Joanna Wade, legal officer of the Maternity Alliance, is a "complete minefield".

If a woman takes off more than 14 weeks, for instance, she need only be reinstated in a "substantially similar" job - a vague term open to wide interpretation.

"An awful lot of women are effectively demoted," says Ms Wade. "Secretaries, for instance, end up back at work as filing clerks."

Moreover, if companies with less than five workers can show that it was not "feasible" (another vague term) to re-employ a woman in any capacity, they need not take her back at all.

The Maternity Alliance says widespread ignorance means that many women bow to pressure from employers to return to work earlier than they are legally obliged. Among other things, it is calling for minimum statutory leave to be extended to 18 weeks, the same period for which maternity pay is available.

Its advice to pregnant women is to get a copy of their company's maternity policy, if it exists, and to acquaint themselves with their rights through the leaflets put out by the various support groups.

Employers, too, would do well to read up on the law. In these supposedly enlightened times, some still exploit maternity leave to dismiss an already unpopular female worker.

It is a move likely to cost them dear at a tribunal.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'