The government has launched a consultation, which will run until 5 April 2019, on extending redundancy protection for pregnant women and new parents. This follows the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices and a 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) which stated that pregnant women and new mothers continue to feel forced out of work.
What is the current law on redundancies and maternity leave?
As the law currently stands, if redundancies are being made, an employee on maternity leave must be given priority over a suitable alternative job if one is available. Failure to do so will be an automatically unfair dismissal.
This protection currently ends as soon as the employee returns to work and research by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found one in nine women said they had been fired or made redundant when they returned to work from maternity leave, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job. The BEIS study also estimated that 54,000 women a year may lose their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity.
Proposal to extend period of protection after return to work for new parents
The new proposals would see an enhanced period of protection to six months following a return to work. The rationale behind this is that it would allow sufficient time for an employee to re-establish themselves in the workplace following their maternity leave. The government is also consulting over whether this same protection should be offered to those returning to work from other similar forms of leave (for example, adoption leave and shared parental leave) and whether more guidance is required on the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.
There has already been some criticism of these proposals with suggestions that they don’t go far enough to overcome the stigma some women face when returning to work. Research published last year by MMB Magazine found that fewer than one in five women felt confident returning to work after maternity leave and more than a third felt so isolated they considered resigning. Further, even if the proposals are introduced, the position remains that employees on maternity leave can still be made redundant if no alternative employment is available.
Whilst these proposals are not going to remedy entirely the discrimination that women can face when returning to the workplace following maternity leave, they undoubtedly signal a move in the right direction.