Employment: Why pregnant often means redundant: Many women have to fight for their job after maternity leave

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The Independent Online
BARCLAYS Bank recently made 400 people redundant, but excluded pregnant women and those on maternity leave.

Their equal opportunities manager, Chris Lyles, says: 'Positive discrimination is illegal, but the law does allow a 'protected group' '. He points out that if a whole plant or factory were closed down, there could be no protected group.

Unfortunately, not all employers are as enlightened and ethical as Barclays. Indeed, making women redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave is all too common. The culprits are not just small manufacturing companies whose business has been hammered by the recession. The big law and accounting firms - who arguably should know better - are among the worst offenders. So are publishers - not least those producing magazines promoting women's rights.

Women on maternity leave are easy targets. If a firm can manage without someone for a several months, it often concludes it can manage without them permanently. The woman in question is disadvantaged by being out of touch with her work, her colleagues and office politics; she may also be emotionally vulnerable. In short, it is hard for her to put up a fight, and the employer knows it.

It is illegal to make someone redundant selectively, and if a woman is singled out because she is pregnant or on maternity leave, that constitutes unfair dismissal. Women are protected by two laws: the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act covers them if they have been working full-time for at least two years, and part-time for five years or more; and the Sex Discrimination Act. Cases taken under both acts are heard at an industrial tribunal. Under the first, the employer has to justify its selection criteria for redundancy. Under the second, the onus is on the woman to prove she has been a victim of discrimination.

The company must offer a woman whose job has become redundant a suitable alternative, if one is available. Moreover, if on returning after having a baby she asks to work part-time, the organisation must allow her to do so, unless it can make a very strong case that the job in question cannot be done on a flexible, job-share or part-time basis. If it refuses her request without justifying its case, she may take legal action.

The good news for women is that a spate of recent industrial tribunal cases have found in favour of women who claim to have been unfairly dismissed while on maternity leave. What is more, at the end of last year the upper limit on compensation - which used to be pounds 11,000 - was removed. The bad news is that while organisations are getting wise to the perils of selective redundancy, a new and insidious permutation is creeping in. The woman returns to work at the appointed time, but her life is made such hell that she leaves voluntarily. The company thus avoids costly lawsuits and redundancy payments.

In practice, of course, employers rely on the knowledge that most women who are treated unfairly will not make a fuss. Many become so demoralised and exhausted that they cannot be bothered to fight. A legal battle is expensive, too. More importantly, they want good references and wish to avoid the stigma of taking legal action against their employer.

So rife is the problem in legal firms that the Association of Women Solicitors set up a special helpline last August. Judith Willis, at the AWS, says one of the most valuable commodities they have to offer is moral support. 'These women are often very demoralised and shaken, and we can tell them they are not alone. Some of them even ask if they can still call themselves solicitors,' she says. 'Women with years of unblemished records and excellent appraisals suddenly find they are 'not good enough'. Alternatively they are told: 'We don't want you any more, we'll give you a decent reference if you don't make a fuss. Some of them get redundancy payments and some of them don't'

It was made clear to one female solicitor, when she was pregnant with her second child, that she would not be welcome back at work after the baby was born. Before she went on maternity leave, she was ostracised in her department. 'I was always very good at my job, but they completely undermined my confidence, and I felt very demoralised.' Colleagues were hostile, and even the head of personnel was powerless to help. But she was determined not to do the firm the favour of finding another job.

A month after returning to work, she left with a pounds 17,500 ex gratia payment and excellent references. 'They knew I wouldn't quibble because the most I'd have got at tribunal would have been pounds 11,000.'

Last year, a female publisher had her job taken by a male colleague three weeks before she was due to return to work after maternity leave. She had been with the company for 10 years. She was offered redundancy or another job one rung below the one she had lost. The company justified the move by a reorganisation in the department. 'My attendance and sick record were perfect, my appraisals had always been good, and there had been no previous indication that they thought me inexperienced,' she says.

A barrister advised her not to pursue a claim, as she would have received less than she would under the company's redundancy package. She negotiated a pounds 20,000 package, which she regards as derisory, with her employer.

'If they had wanted to make me redundant, they could have given me a proper settlement, to make both me and them feel good,' she says. 'But many of these bosses have wives who stay at home, and act in a certain way. The assumption is that you can go and bank the money and find another job. But you lose all the rights and benefits you have built up over the years - Bupa, 30 days holiday and so on.'

A female social worker, who had worked for a local authority for 10 years, was made redundant while on maternity leave when her employer closed down the centre where she worked. The other 30 people at the centre were redeployed. She took the authority to a tribunal, and walked away with pounds 5,500 redundancy and a pounds 5,500 out-of-court settlement.

She could not afford legal counsel and fought her battle alone - much of it from a hospital bed when the stress almost brought on a miscarriage. 'Local authorities are meant to be enlightened - mine was even an equal opportunities employer - but they thought I would be fulfilled at home,' she says.

But while she urges women to stand up for their rights, she recommends getting someone to advocate for you. 'When you are pregnant you are into nurturing, not fighting,' she says.

She believes old-fashioned attitudes are entrenched. 'Both male and childless female colleagues think that you can't have a job and be a mother,' she says. 'They see it as the best of both worlds.'

Parents at Work is an information and support group that advises both individuals and companies. Irene Pilia, at the group, says: 'People are working so hard these days that if a woman with a baby asks for concessions, an immediate barrier springs up. People's gut reaction is 'why should you get concessions when I'm struggling, too?' '

She says most jobs can be done on a flexible or job-share basis, but old attitudes die hard. Much of her organisation's work is trying to change attitudes 'at grass roots level', as she puts it. They have more than 200 corporate members - including banks, oil companies, British Telecom, J Sainsbury, Hewlett-Packard and the BBC - for whom they run seminars on issues like 'how to implement family-friendly policies'.

'We highlight good practice,' Ms Pilia says, 'and try to show companies that 'where there's a will there's a way.' '