The cost of being unfair to women

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TWENTY-FOUR years after British law guaranteed women equal pay for equal work, some believe that equal opportunities legislation has gone too far.

The recent case involving a former Army major, Helen Homewood, illustrates how expensive non-compliance with such legislation can be. Mrs Homewood, who was forced to leave the Army because she was pregnant, was awarded a total of pounds 299,851 earlier this year by an industria1 tribunal.

The claim followed a High Court decision that the Ministry of Defence's policy of dismissing pregnant women was unfair. Mrs Homewood then claimed sex discrimination. Since last year, awards in such cases are longer subject to an pounds 11,000 maximum.

Further protection should be in force for all pregnant workers by October. These reforms, contained in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act (Turera), emanate from the Government's obligation to translate European Directives into domestic legislation.

It will become automatically unfair to dismiss an employee because she is pregnant, regardless of her length of service. At present, only employees with over two years' continuous employment acquire the statutory right not to be unfairly dismissed.

Employers are awaiting with some trepidation a case presently being heard in the European Court of Justice. The complainant argued that she was dismissed because of her pregnancy and that this amounted to sex discrimination. Her employer has argued that incapacity, not pregnancy, was the issue and that a male employee would have been dismissed in similar circumstances. Similar European cases tend to support the employee's argument, and a decision in her favour could have expensive consequences for many employers.

Jenny Earle, legal officer for the pressure group Maternity Alliance, dismisses suggestions that the odds are increasingly in favour of pregnant employees. She says: 'The odds are stacked against women who are routinely dismissed because they are pregnant. Why should they be punished by way of lost opportunities?

'It is our experience that pregnant women are often in fear of telling their employers that they are pregnant; others have been dismissed because of their pregnancy.'

The Maternity Alliance's findings are supported by a briefing titled Not in Labour, prepared by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. The 1992 report, based on evidence from 61 CABs, concluded that 'some employers' attitudes to pregnancy can be hostile and uninformed'.

Ms Earle believes that employers are going to have to come to terms with pregnancy in the workplace. She observes: 'Pregnancy is easier for employers to handle because, unlike sickness, it can be planned for.'

Although the Maternity Alliance, which is based in London, welcomes the added protection offered to women by Turera, it notes that the Government has delayed its implementation until the European Commission's deadline.

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