Pregnancy discrimination is a significant problem in working life
In uncertain labour market situations, such as those faced by women in fixed-term, part-time, agency or zero-hours employment, there is a very high risk of being discriminated due to pregnancy or family leave. Photo: Getttyimages.
Discrimination due to pregnancy or family leave is unequivocally forbidden by law. Despite this it continues to be common, especially in female-dominated service sectors, that when an employee announces a pregnancy it affects their employment relationship. This is a significant problem.
PAM is contacted around a thousand times a year in connection with pregnancy discrimination. PAM’s lawyer Julia Jeganova believes that many cases go undetected because only a small fraction of employees who experience discrimination dare to act on it and seek help.
It can be difficult to spot pregnancy-related discrimination. It can occur already at the job-seeking stage.
“You might suspect discrimination if in a job interview questions are asked about any plans to start a family, or whether an applicant has children or small children. A recruiter may try to get round the question by asking how flexible an applicant is on working hours or whether they are regularly available for overtime and weekend work. If an employer decides to hire a less qualified applicant after another applicant has said that have small children at home, discrimination in recruitment may be suspected”, Jeganova says.
Three examples of pregnancy discrimination
According to Jeganova, in uncertain labour market situations, such as those faced by women in fixed-term, part-time, agency or zero-hours employment, there is a very high risk of being discriminated due to pregnancy or family leave. Men and persons of non-binary gender also experience family leave discrimination if they are not encouraged to take family leave. The lion’s share of those contacting the union, however, are women.
PAM is made aware of different types of discrimination.
“An employee may become suspicious due to their employer’s comments or general attitude, if a fixed-term contract is not extended after the employer learns that the employee is pregnant.”
“Another example would be where a person working in a managerial role and going on family leave is replaced by another employee not on a temporary but on a permanent basis. On returning to work, the employee was offered work at a lower level and on less pay. Employees have also been bypassed in their career path for being pregnant”, Jeganova points out.
A contract might have ended in dismissal or in a fixed-term contract that has been continually renewed not being extended.
“It’s worth remembering, however, that pregnancy doesn’t automatically mean that termination of an employment relationship is always unlawful. Employment can be terminated on lawful grounds, but not specifically due to pregnancy”, she adds.
A third example that Jeganova raises is termination of a trial period, which typically occurs as soon as an employee hears that an employee is pregnant.
“Sometimes a case can boil down to whether an employer has verifiably been informed of a pregnancy. It may not be enough that an employee has provided a sick note with a diagnosis code indicating a pregnancy-related illness. Even if you use a search engine to find out that this refers to pregnancy-related nausea, this doesn’t prove that the employer was aware of the pregnancy. An email sent by the employee notifying pregnancy would be a much clearer indication that the employer was aware”, she says.
Can an employer transfer an employee to other duties after family leave?
“The bottom line is that the employee can return to the same job, or if this is not possible, to a job at the same level and of the same type and at the same pay. As a last resort the employee must be offered other work commensurate with their employment contract, if their previous job no longer exists for example due to restructuring”, she points out.
Changes in the law and awareness-raising are key
PAM is in favour of legal amendments as also proposed by the Ombudsman for Equality to prevent pregnancy discrimination. The key change is a provision to be added to the Employment Contracts Act which would prohibit non-extension of a fixed-term employment contract based on pregnancy or family leave or making a fixed-term contract only up to the start of family leave.
“It is important to raise both employers’ and employees’ awareness of their obligations under law when it comes to the rights of employees who are pregnant or on family leave. PAM mostly carries out ex post checks when members bring cases to the union’s attention, Jeganova adds. ”
In a press release earlier in the week, PAM’s Collective Bargaining Director Jaana Ylitalo commented that the rights of employees in temporary and insecure employment are respected less well than those in permanent employment. Therefore, actions to prevent pregnancy discrimination are especially important for people working in service sectors.
Know your rights
Further information on employees’ rights is available on the website of the Ombudsman for Equality. Read more here.
1. Pregnancy doesn’t make you unsuitable for a new job. If you find an interesting job advert, apply for it.
2. You have the right not to mention your pregnancy at any stage when applying for a job. You can also refuse to answer questions relating to children or having children. Refusal must not affect the outcome of the recruitment process.
3. If your new job causes danger to you or the foetus, inform your employer of your pregnancy as soon as you are selected. Occupational health and safety measures ensure your wellbeing and safe working conditions up to the start of maternity leave.
4. Recruitment decisions cannot be affected by pregnancy, children or family leave. This also applies if you are applying for a fixed-term contract. Recruitment decisions must be based on a skills assessment. Pregnancy, children or planned family leave are not relevant to assessing your competence.
Website of the Ombudsman for Equality.