British employees of US airline win right to sue over radiation risk

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The Independent Online

Four British-based flight attendants have won the right to sue an American airline after claiming they risked the health of their unborn babies by being ordered to continue flying while pregnant.

A London tribunal published a landmark ruling on Monday that rejected United Airlines' claim that the women should be treated as US employees.

Instead Patricia Mulcahy, 31, Sylvie Gayler, 31, Jane Collins, 39, and Lindsay Cox, 34, may now sue the company for sex discrimination under British law. The women allege that their babies' health could have been harmed by radiation levels on long-haul flights if they had continued flying.

Under a new European law, recently introduced to this country, the women, who have all worked for United for around 11 years, should have been offered suitable alternative work after 31 weeks of pregnancy.

But the company, which employs 850 attendants at Heathrow airport, refused to provide such work and suspended the four without pay.

The tribunal accepted that British law applied to the women, although they did not habitually work in Britain and were hired in the United States and employed under a predominantly American contract. But the relationship as a whole was much more closely connected to Britain, it concluded.

Barry Clarke, of the law firm Russell Jones & Walker, which represented the women, said: "This is a ground-breaking case that will have a major impact on a number of employees working in different sectors."

"As a result of developments in European legislation, UK law was recently amended and many more workers, including those working on foreign contracts for foreign companies, should now find themselves protected by British employment rights, including maternity rights," he said.

United Airlines is the first company to face a test case under the new law.

A spokesman for United Airlines said yesterday: "We have received the decision but have not come to any final conclusion." The company also said it reserved the right to appeal the ruling.

Mr Clarke said the outcome of this case will benefit employees based in Britain who often travel abroad on business, and those who are based abroad but often travel to Britain on business.

The women, who all became pregnant in 1999, have since returned to work as cabin crew for United, but now want to be reimbursed for the pay they lost when pregnant.

They also want the tribunal to agree that they should have been offered suitable alternative ground work, instead of being treated as "off sick".

Having accepted that the women may rely on British law, the tribunal will now consider their full claim.

Kevin Creighan, president of the British section of the Association of Flight Attendants, said United Airlines had a "careless attitude" towards the women, and that their company policies violated the laws of countries where their employees are based.

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