The dangers of over-generous parental rights

Picture of Danniella McClain, who won a discrimination case against a London estate agencyPregnant? Wait till the boss hears | Life and style | The Guardian

This article was about a woman (Danniella McClain, right) who worked for an upmarket estate agent’s in west London, who informed her boss that she was pregnant (she is single and the pregnancy was unplanned) after having worked there nine months, and was made redundant a few days later. The article also contains some complaints about how there is an increase in pregnant women being made redundant since the recession started, and that cuts to Legal Aid make it more difficult for women on lower wages to fight such dismissals.

I found myself quite sympathetic to the employer when I read this article. This woman had been working there for just a few months and found herself pregnant, having presented herself with apparently no ties when she went for the interview. The company was not a local greengrocer’s, but neither was it a major media conglomerate or transnational oil company: it appears to have only one operational office (its registered office is somewhere else) and this woman would have been one of a fairly small number of staff. The article does not state the capacity in which she was employed, or whether she had to be trained to do the job she was doing (in other words, whether they had invested significantly in her or whether it would have been a trivial matter to employ someone else for a few weeks). There is also a press release from the woman’s solicitors, Leigh Day & Co, which states that she had been promoted shortly before she announced her pregnancy.

The Guardian article alleges that complaints among employers about women’s maternity rights are being more openly aired and that, according to the legal specialist at Leigh Day, “employers often make stereotypical assumptions about pregnant women — that they will only come back part-time, that they will be less committed to the job, that they will no longer be willing to be at the employer’s beck and call — and decide that it is inconvenient to continue employing a pregnant woman”. These are not stereotypes, they are real concerns for the employer who is going to be losing her services for at least two weeks (four in a factory), and possibly up to a year. The employer is not liable for maternity pay, but must train whoever is covering for the missing employee, and possibly pay agency fees. He or she will, of course, have to do this for however many employees take maternity leave at this time, and may not simply dismiss and replace any of them.

Guess who does not have any right to maternity pay or leave? The self-employed. If they do not work, and do not have the money in reserve, they do not eat or pay the rent. So the shareholders of BP or News International might not mind meeting the costs of maternity leave for female staff, but one cannot blame a small business owner for begrudging a new employee a right they do not have themselves. One possible consequence of this is employers finding ways not to employ women; another could be the spread of working arrangements based on “self-employment”, in which the employee (like the boss, depending on the size and status of the company) has no such rights and has to account for their taxes for him- or herself. The right of new employees not to be dismissed because of pregnancy is a relatively recent development — when I did business studies at school in the early 1990s, I was told that there was a period of several months before one had this right, which is how it should be, particularly in a small company. One does not join a community, and immediately expect to be able to cause them inconvenience and remain welcome. There are things we would all do for a long-established friend that we would not do for a new one; why do we expect otherwise of someone who is not our friend, but our employer?

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