Mothers lose right to breastfeed children at work

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The Independent Online

Thousands of mothers have lost the right to breastfeed at work after an employment appeal tribunal ruled that women have no legal protection when they return to their employment after their statutory maternity period.

The ruling reverses a previous decision that gave mothers the right to claim sex discrimination if employers failed to make proper provision for breastfeeding at work.

In a judgment seen by The Independent but not yet published, Helen Williams, 31, a flight lieutenant with the RAF, has been told that her landmark victory last year cannot stand. Mrs Williams fell pregnant in January 2000 but was told that if she wished to continue to breastfeed beyond her maternity leave period she should take unpaid maternity leave. The RAF guidance on maternity arrangements also made clear that breastfeeding could not interfere with a servicewoman's operational duties.

Although Mrs Williams wished to return from maternity leave on her agreed date and could not afford to take unpaid leave, she also wished to continue breastfeeding. She decided to resign.

Last year the employment tribunal ruled that Mrs Williams had been discrim-inated against on the basis of her sex. Mrs Williams said then: "I am delighted that the outcome of the tribunal should bring about changes that will give women greater freedom to choose to breastfeed their child without having to compromise their careers or their financial stability."

But the new judgment by the appeal tribunal rejects any such right to allow mothers to breastfeed at work.

Julie Mellor, who chairs the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is supporting Mrs Williams, described the new ruling as a setback for working mothers. Mrs Mellor said: "Practical realities of modern mothers' lives mean that many women return to work while they are breastfeeding. "

The appeal tribunal has ordered Mrs Williams' case to be reheard by a separate panel.

The Health and Safety Executive has issued guidelines that include new risk assessments for mothers who have given birth within six months or who are breastfeeding. In its ruling the appeal tribunal acknowledged this, reinforcing an employer's duty to assess the job of a breastfeeding mother to ensure that it presented no threat to her health or that of her child.