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Some 50,000 women who go on maternity leave every year do not return due to discrimination, according to a Labour party analysis of figures from the House of Commons library.
Labour says around 14 per cent of women who go on maternity leave return to find their job under threat with many being told they cannot return part-time. Some are forced into jobs with less responsibility while others are effectively constructively dismissed.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, writing in the Independent, said: “The scale of discrimination during maternity leave is a hidden disgrace. The new figures show up to 50,000 women don’t have a job to go back to often because employers think they don’t have to take new mothers as seriously.
“We need national action to deal with maternity discrimination including tackling irresponsible employers who are breaking the law.”
She added that new fees to take an employer to an employment tribunal would put many women off taking action against employers and defending their rights.
Catherine Wilson, partner and employment specialist at leading national law firm Thomas Eggar LLP, commented: “The starting point is that dismissal for pregnancy, or the fact that a woman has given birth to a child, is automatically unfair. This applies to all employers irrespective of their size and there is no qualifying period of employment required as a condition of pursuing a claim. Following a period of maternity leave, therefore, a woman has the right to return to work however it is the nature of this right that appears to be causing some confusion.
“There are three types of maternity leave: compulsory maternity leave of 2 weeks following childbirth; ordinary maternity leave of a further 24 weeks, and then additional maternity leave of a further 26 weeks. The job to which she returns, however, may vary depending upon the length of time she chooses to take. Apart from a redundancy situation an employee returning after an isolated period of ordinary maternity leave is entitled to return to the job in which she was employed before her period of absence. This is not necessarily the same as the job she left. For example, a returning teacher would not necessarily have the right to return to teaching the particular class she would have taught before her maternity leave. Her right is to be placed in the same job which is as near as possible to the job she left. Salary and grade and indeed a teaching role are therefore protected. Precise job content, degree of interest, and level of enjoyment arguably are not.
“The position can be more complicated for those women who choose to return after taking a further period of additional maternity leave. In this situation the woman has the right to return to the job in which she was employed before her absence or if this is not reasonably practical then to another job which is both suitable for her and appropriate for her in the circumstances. The definition of job is the same as for returnees from ordinary maternity leave, but there is little doubt in practice that it is less likely that the ‘same’ job will be available after a period of, say, a year rather than the shorter ordinary leave period. This may penalise women who choose to spend more time at home. However, it is legal.”