Maternity Action: Fighting discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers

Maternity Action: Fighting discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers

The number of babies born in London has been falling of late but the capital still saw 107,000 of them enter the world in 2022. Are their mothers doing well? The answer in many cases will be not as well as they should be.

In the most recent major study of discrimination faced by women during pregnancy and early motherhood three out of four mothers said they had faced a “negative or possibly discriminatory experience” during pregnancy, maternity leave or on returning to work. Eleven per cent said they had had to leave their jobs, the vast majority taking that decision themselves because they felt treated so poorly. The rest just found themselves laid off.

This landscape of disadvantage was not broken down by region, but nonetheless contains clues about how might be affecting women the capital.

Ros Bragg is director of Maternity Action, a charity that campaigns to protect and strengthen the employment, social security and healthcare rights of pregnant women, new mothers and their families. “London has a very high cost of living compared to most parts of the UK,” she points out. “That exacerbates inequalities. You see high levels of poverty and insecure work. We are particularly concerned about women in those situations because they are the least well supported.”

Greater London Authority figures prove the socio-economic point. The most recent estimate showed that London’s overall poverty rate had fallen slightly compared with prior to 2000 but was still running at 25 per cent, the second highest in the UK after the West Midlands’ 27 per cent. The inner London rate is 29 per cent. One in 16 Londoners as a whole is employed in a job with a temporary contract – higher than the UK-wide figure – and women are around twice as likely as men to be in part-time work.

Low income work done by women tends to make demands on physical stamina – the retail and care sectors for example. Bragg says this means the discrimination they face “tends to be quite intense during pregnancy”.

She describes how some employers fail to implement their health and safety obligations. Individual risk assessments which should mean, for example, that pregnant women don’t have to stand or sit for long periods or endure avoidable stress, might be made but are then not implemented.

Sometimes, rather than making adjustments to help pregnant women, bosses will find ways to exclude them when they still wish or need to work, perhaps by revising shift patterns. On top of that, some try to get away with not stumping up statutory maternity pay, even though they can reclaim it from the government.

Seeking redress for maternity discrimination is not easy. “For example, these women often don’t have the option of securing private legal advice,” Bragg says. “They might have a union, but if they don’t there’s just nowhere they can turn.” It can take two years for a tribunal claim to be heard and even if it is successful, employers don’t always pay up monies found to be due.

In practice, Bragg says, matters rarely get that far: “Most women affected by maternity discrimination do not seek advice at all, so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of employers getting away with poor treatment.”

Bragg emphasises that there are “different patterns of discrimination between different job types and incomes”. At the higher end of the skills and incomes scale, it is more likely to occur after maternity leave.

A Maternity Action study looked at the experiences of female academics, working in a sector where fixed term contracts are common. Bragg says woman who’ve had children are at risk of not having their contracts renewed, leaving them with a choice between challenging the decision, which is difficult to do and carries risks of being “identified as a troublemaker” or just putting up with it.

What are the prospects for change? “It’s been a bit of a desert for securing changes in employment law and policy in recent years,” Bragg says. “Opportunities to influence have been much more limited than we had hoped.”

However, she says Maternity Action has had “definite progress” with getting the Health and Safety Executive’s online guidance improved, making it more detailed and emphatic about employers’ risk assessment tasks. They’ve also worked closely with a number of trade unions to help them represent pregnant women and new mothers more effectively.

Campaigns include promoting an action plan as part of a wider Alliance for Maternity Rights to end unfair redundancies and generally strengthen maternity (and also paternity) laws, calls for higher maternity pay, and seeking an end to the NHS charging for maternity care.

The rules governing the latter issue are complicated, with free care available to those deemed “ordinarily resident” in the UK. This can include foreign nationals, but much depends on nationality, immigration status and other circumstances of residence.

This particularly affects migrant women, who are often the most vulnerable and in need of help. Maternity Action’s website puts it starkly: “NHS charging deters vulnerable migrant women from accessing NHS care  – both GP and hospital care – because women are terrified of receiving a bill they simply cannot pay.”

The gravest of poor health outcomes can ensue and much of the problem is concentrated in the capital. “A substantial proportion of asylum seekers are in London for at least part of their asylum journey,” Bragg says.

Three years ago, she passed “absolutely furious” comment on the case of a 35-week pregnant asylum seeker whose baby died after a male member of staff at an accommodation centre in Croydon refused to call an ambulance when she was suffering pain and bleeding.

An extreme incident, yet connected to a large and broad spectrum of discrimination against women expecting babies or in the earliest stages of motherhood. The Maternity Action’ website contains a wealth of advice and information about how to overcome it and what more needs to be done. It has a dedicated advice line for London residents.

This article is the fourth in a series of five to be published by On London in the run-up to the election for Mayor on 2 May. They are kindly supported by Trust For London, which provides  funding for each of the five projects covered. On London’s policy on supported content can be read here. Photo from Maternity Action.

Categories: Analysis

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