Everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work. But too many women find themselves discriminated against by their employer because they are pregnant. Many are pushed out of work because they have caring responsibilities for their children or elderly parents, and many still experience sexual harassment at work.
Three years ago, the government promised to publish an employment bill that would extend redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and allow parents to take extended paid leave when newborns need neonatal care. Ministers have promised – no less than 20 times – to publish the bill. But the government has since abandoned this promise. The Conservatives are failing working women once again.
I know only too well the challenges of trying to balance work with being a good mum. Care is the root of much of the discrimination women face, whether that’s through becoming a mother, caring for relatives or simply trying to balance childcare around inflexible work. I cared for my own mother from the age of 10, and became a parent aged only 16. I know the realities, the challenges and the difference that support can make when you need it.
The employment bill is also a lost opportunity to ensure women are safe and protected in their jobs. The government promised to make employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment and to strengthen protections against third-party harassment. I’ve seen at first hand how sexism is still rampant in the workplace. After my own recent experience of sexism and misogyny, the number of women who have been in touch with me from across the country attests to how widespread these experiences are – from everyday, routine sexism to the most disturbing forms of abuse.
This bill was the product of a commitment the government made in 2019 to reform redundancy protections and help keep pregnant women and new mothers in work. It represented the entirety of ministers’ response to a 2016 finding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is rife in Britain’s workplaces. More than five years after those words, women are still waiting for action.
Without legislation, we are at risk of turning back the progress women have made in the workplace. Many women now face growing economic uncertainty. Single-parent households are among the most exposed to the cost of living crisis, with savings pots 20 times smaller than the UK average. This crisis has also exacerbated period poverty, leaving women unable to afford even basic essentials. While food bank use has surged, Conservative MPs are busy blaming people’s cooking skills. Tory ministers may not know what it’s like to be a single parent when your fridge-freezer breaks down and you don’t have the cash to go out and just buy a new one.
The employment bill would have given fast-track protection against sexual harassment. But the promise to tackle it in the workplace now looks set to fall by the wayside. For all Boris Johnson’s claims to be an ally in the fight against sexism, his record speaks otherwise. I’m still waiting to hear why an award for “sexist of the year” was given out at one of his law-breaking lockdown parties in Downing Street. Celebrating and rewarding sexism is symbolic of a rotten culture, and sets an appalling example to employers.
Rather than stacking the odds against working parents, Labour would extend statutory maternity and paternity leave, introduce the right to bereavement leave, and strengthen protections for pregnant women by making it unlawful, as a default, to dismiss a woman who is pregnant for six months after her return. We would also introduce paid family and carer’s leave. Our plans would ensure all workers have the right to flexible working as a default from day one, with employers required to accommodate this as soon as reasonably possible. Many of the women I speak to are held back by the needless inflexibility that prevents them from juggling responsibilities.
Ministers promised to make Britain the best place to work in the world. For working women, this claim sounds like yet another of Boris Johnson’s feeble jokes. By failing to deliver this employment bill, this government is failing working women. We all deserve better.
Angela Rayner is the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, Labour deputy leader, shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work
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