A single mother caught in a vicious circle: Dawn Clarke just wanted to do her best for her children and her employers. She failed. Lynne Wallis reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
For four years Dawn Clarke worked as a typist for the Manufacturing, Science, Finance trade union while juggling the demands of being a single mother and sole breadwinner. She was happy to be able to provide for her small son while doing a job she enjoyed. When she became pregnant with her second child, she had no worries about her ability to manage. But now, a year later, she has been sacked from her job and has lost a hard-won nursery place.

It began to go wrong on Dawn's return from maternity leave. She could not afford to pay for someone to look after her older child, Daniel, five, before and after school, and so asked to work reduced hours. The union refused, she says, to consider the application. Ten months later, after negotiations, when it did offer her a reduced-hours package, the accompanying conditions in the form of daily monitoring of her work were so repugnant that she refused the offer. She was then sacked.

Dawn's big mistake, says her former employer, is that she left it too late to apply for the reduced hours. Due back at work on 21 September, Dawn did not contact the union until 1 September. 'I know it sounds daft, but I didn't realise I was due back that soon,' she says. 'No one wrote to let me know. The time just flew. By the time I realised I'd miscalculated, I thought, they're going to be annoyed. They won't want me to work reduced hours now. So I put it off even longer.'

Dawn is not alone in finding the prospect of talking to her employers about her domestic worries daunting. She admits it was a mistake. 'I had an awful lot on my plate after the birth,' she adds. 'Chanelle had been born at just seven months. I didn't have the baby blues, but I certainly wasn't well.' She is still on medication for high blood pressure.

'When I first returned to work I thought they were just annoyed that I left it so late, but that they'd sort it out. When I insisted I couldn't afford extra child care, they said it wasn't their problem and that reduced hours were out of the question.' Both of the senior staff Dawn reported to were childless. 'They kept saying they knew what it was like, but they didn't. They've never had to look after a sick child, or worry about getting to work on time. They don't know how hard it is to find the right childminder.

'But what really kills me is that I've lost the nursery place I fought so hard to get. You have to be employed to qualify, you see. That was almost worse than losing my job.

'I can't fault the MSF on my maternity leave, it was generous,' says Dawn. 'And they paid two-thirds of the pounds 160 childcare bill for Chanelle because I had her while employed by them.' But on a salary of pounds 11,000, topping up the monthly bill for Chanelle's childcare, plus paying full costs for Daniel's morning and evening childminder, was not an option. 'After rent, food, travel, bills and so on, there was no spare cash. I had no choice,' Dawn says.

She applied to work 10 hours less a week. When her employers formally refused her request, she worked the reduced hours anyway, as, she says, there was no other way. Dawn insists she always got through her workload, although she usually went without a lunch break to do it.

There is a perception, says Dawn, that women who leave work early to pick children up from school are 'skiving' or going home to have an easy time. 'The reality is that I would go straight from work to pick Daniel up from school at 3.30, about two miles away, and would then walk or cycle another mile from there to get Chanelle from the childminder. And then I'd go shopping and cook their dinner. And all evening, I would have two very demanding kids on my hands. I love them, I'm not complaining,' says Dawn, 'but it isn't easy. Sometimes, when it was busy, I'd stay at work 20 minutes after I needed to have left, sometimes longer, but the bosses never appreciated that. They just got on my case when I was 10 minutes late in the mornings. They saw me as an abuser of the system because, for financial reasons, I was no longer able to work a full day.'

Shortly after Dawn returned to work, Chanelle was rushed into hospital with a viral infection. Dawn told her boss, warning her not to be surprised if she was called out to the hospital. 'Oh we won't be, don't worry,' came the sarcastic response. 'Sometimes,' added Dawn, 'a morning just does not go according to plan. Kids are unpredictable. But employers, especially those without children, don't understand that. This doubles the pressure on the mother.'

In March, after seven months of argument, Dawn's bosses finally agreed that she work reduced hours on a pro rata salary. The big 'but' came in the form of a clause in her new contract that required daily monitoring of her time-keeping, personal phone calls, cigarette breaks and of how quickly she got through her workload. Dawn, who claims she had never previously received complaints about her work, replied that the monitoring would be fine, so long as all other members of staff were subjected to it. 'If I had agreed, I would have been admitting that my work had been sub-standard and my conduct unacceptable in the past, which it hadn't,' she says. She didn't sign the monitoring clause, but agreed to the rest of the contract. She was sacked for breaking her contract.

Dawn is now living on income support and is finding life on pounds 66 a week, including child benefits, difficult. She said: 'Kids cost a lot of money. Daniel keeps asking me 'Have you got a job yet, Mummy?' and 'When am I going to get the bike you promised?' I just don't know what to say. But I worry more that Chanelle is getting so clingy, with me at home all day. When I do get a job, it's going to be really hard to leave her.'

John Chowcat, Assistant General Secretary at MSF, denies the allegations of sexual discrimination Dawn has made. He says: 'The department needed a full-time person. When the structure of the department changed, some months later, we did offer Dawn reduced hours, accompanied by reasonable monitoring. Our priority is our members, and servicing them must come first.'

'I moved heaven and earth to keep my job and look after my children rather than claim benefit,' says Dawn. 'But you don't qualify for child care unless you've got a job. But you can't get, or keep, a job without child care.'

(Photograph omitted)