BA to compensate cabin crew grounded for being pregnant

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British Airways has agreed to pay more than 500 of its stewardesses millions of pounds in compensation for money lost when they were "grounded" for being pregnant.

An employment tribunal ruled in November 1998 that the airline was guilty of sexual discrimination for taking away the flying allowances of women who had become pregnant and were moved to ground duties.

Yesterday, BA finally agreed a settlement after prolonged negotiations with the Transport and General Workers' Union. The agreement means the women will win back pay and, in future, pregnant cabin crew will be paid an allowance when they are switched to ground duties. The airline estimated that the agreement would cost £2.3m, but the union said the figure would be nearer £3m.

Brendan Gold, a union officer at Heathrow airport who led the negotiations, said: "We have established an important principle. The earnings of cabin crew are significantly influenced by their allowances when they are on flying duty. It was an unfair anomaly that when women cabin crew became pregnant and were transferred to ground duties, they lost the allowances and, consequently, a significant amount of money."

A spokeswoman for the airline said that pregnant women were grounded under health and safety legislation passed in 1998. As soon as the company was informed of a pregnancy the employee was found alternative work. Although flying allowances were lost, basic pay stayed the same, she said.

The employment tribunal found that while a female stewardess need not be entitled to cost of living expenses when she was moved into work at an airport, she should be paid a sum equivalent to the allowance she had received for being away from home when she was flying. The second payment had, in effect, become part of the basic salary, the tribunal ruled.

The spokeswoman said: "Since the employment tribunal ruling in 1998, we have been working with the unions to work out the exact sum that should be paid and we are pleased we have a found a solution." Out of 14,000 BA cabin crew, about 130 a year take maternity leave, the airline said. Even before the health and safety legislation was introduced, the airline grounded women when they were three months pregnant.

The union said it had signed similar deals with other airlines after negotiations over rulings by employment tribunals. Mr Gold said: "We were able to build on that experience to challenge British Airways."

He stressed that the airline was a flagship company and argued that the agreement would send a message to other organisations that they could not treat pregnant female staff any worse than male staff.