A Leeds law firm is calling for an extension on the time window for raising a tribunal for women facing maternity discrimination in the workplace, allowing them greater access to justice.
Employment law specialist Ison Harrison say that the current three-month window available to begin a tribunal should be increased to at least six months to enable women who have been unfairly treated at work to hold their employer to account.
Yunus Lunat, partner and head of employment law at Ison Harrison believes maternity discrimination is on the increase and in the past year alone has personally seen a 75 percent jump in queries from women who feel they have been discriminated against, with the majority not wishing to take the case any further. The call for an extension to the time available to women to bring a tribunal case comes as the firm launches a campaign urging women who have been treated unfairly at work to no longer be afraid to come forward.
Mr Lunat has handled cases where the working hours of women returning from maternity leave have been inexplicably cut, even though the employer had recently taken on other staff. Cases invariably involve female workers being forced out of a job altogether by bullying tactics.
He said: “All the evidence is showing that maternity discrimination is getting worse not better, which is unacceptable in supposed times of gender equality. One in nine women are being forced out of their jobs every year and less than one percent actually bring a tribunal claim. What we are increasingly seeing is women being encouraged to take a so-called settlement agreement that usually contains a confidentiality clause. Effectively they are being paid off by bosses to remain silent.
“Sadly many women feel pressurised to accept these pay-offs and are often deterred from bringing a tribunal because of the length of time it can take, the costs and the stresses it can put on an individual or family involved. I would urge women in this situation to consider that the short-term pain often experienced of going to tribunal can lead to positive, long-term gain. Rogue employers need to be brought to justice so that they don’t continue to take advantage of other employers in the same situation.”
Mr Lunat believes that the current three-month window available to women to bring a tribunal claim against a discriminatory employer is a fundamental reason why so few women actually proceed with holding employers to account.
He adds: “There are many misconceptions. I see mostly women in managerial roles where they are made redundant soon after returning to work following maternity leave. People often think it’s shop floor-type jobs involved but this is not the case – it’s generally women higher up the career ladder.”
A 2015 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in partnership with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills concluded that 77% of pregnant women reported negative pregnancy-related experiences, with around 11 percent stating that they had been forced to leave their jobs. This equates to more than 50,000 mothers each year being forced out of their employment, and almost 400,000 being subjected to discriminatory treatment.
The report also revealed a stark and outdated attitude towards women in the workplace including a finding amongst employers that a woman should be forced to declare whether she is pregnant at the recruitment stage, with 25% expressing the view that it was reasonable to question women of childbearing age at interview about their plans to have children.
Mr Lunat concludes: “The system has to change for women and their maternity rights. Giving three months to bring a claim is simply not long enough given the nature of childbirth and the fact that the first three months after giving birth can be so demanding physically and mentally.
“Women unfairly dismissed or treated by their employers must come forward and realise they are doing the right thing if treated badly after maternity leave. As with any legal case the process can often be stressful and off-putting it’s important to remember that the outcome can often make up for this and sends out a clear message to unscrupulous employers. We are launching a #discriminatenomum campaign this month which will hopefully encourage more women to come forward and not be afraid to take the appropriate action.”
Mr Lunat recently achieved significant five-figure cost contributions from a national employer in two pregnancy discrimination cases following a three-day hearing. The cases involved a redundancy situation which the employer claimed had arisen in the workplace. The individuals selected for redundancy were both women, one who had just returned from maternity leave and another who was due to go on maternity leave. Mr Lunat successfully convinced the tribunal that the dismissal of both individuals was not only automatically unfair, but also that they were tainted by discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy. The outcome made it an extremely expensive redundancy exercise for the employer.