The Equal Opportunities Commission has recently published research showing a substantial increase in the number of claims to the Employment Tribunal for pregnancy related unfair dismissal. It is difficult to know whether this reflects increasing discrimination by employers or increasing awareness of employment rights by employees but more than 1,000 women made claims in the last recorded year.
One of the reasons why so many claims are made to the Employment Tribunal is that the law relating to maternity rights is both complicated and counter-intuitive. The legal starting point is the general principle that an employer must not discriminate against an employee for a reason related to her pregnancy or maternity leave. This protection applies to all employees and any dismissal in connection with pregnancy or maternity leave (including dismissal for pregnancy related sickness absence) will be both automatically unfair and an act of sex discrimination regardless of the length of time for which the employee has worked for the employer.
All employers are obliged to carry out a risk assessment in respect of pregnant employees and to make appropriate adjustments to their working environment and must allow employees to take paid time off for anti-natal care.
All employees are entitled to 6 months maternity leave regardless of the length of time they have been employed and those employees who have been continuously employed for 26 weeks as of the 15th week before their expected date are now entitled to 12 months maternity leave.
Statutory maternity pay (SMP) is payable where the employee has been employed for 6 months as of the 15th week before the expected date. SMP amounts to 90% of the employee’s pay for the first 6 weeks of their maternity leave and then £100 per week for the next 18 weeks. If the employee takes more than 26 weeks maternity leave then the remainder of their maternity leave will be unpaid.