A third of pregnant women fear losing their job over Covid safety worries - rules protecting them are not fit for purpose
Jessica (pseudonym) was six months pregnant when her boss called her in to “discuss her performance”. After repeatedly asking to work from home since she’d become pregnant, and being refused any additional protections against Covid, she realized that she was being sacked.
Her experience is depressingly familiar. Since the pandemic began, our advice line has taken hundreds of calls from pregnant women who felt they had no choice but to continue to work in an unsafe environment.
It’s now well known that pregnant women face increased risk from complications of Covid.
At the time of writing, they make up 20 per cent of all of the most critically ill Covid patients, despite constituting less than 1 per cent of the UK population. At the same time, vaccination take up rate is extremely low.
The women who we speak to are terrified of catching Covid – but they also fear losing their jobs if they raise their concerns at work.
Pregnant women shouldn’t be forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods
Our recent survey of pregnant women found that more than third were worried about being sacked if they asked their employer to do more to protect them from Covid.
A fifth of respondents, 20 per cent, said they took time off, or even left their job because they were so concerned about catching Covid.
Many others started their maternity leave early, or took sick or unpaid leave, to avoid being exposed to the virus at work. One woman told us, “My manager told me that I had ‘signed up to being sick’ by becoming pregnant, the clear implication being that I should not ask for any special provision.”
Pregnant women shouldn’t be forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods - but it’s clear that the rules protecting them in the workplace are not fit for purpose.
As it stands, there is a vast gap between what the law says on health and safety at work, and actual employer practice. This gap leaves women under pressure to work in unsafe conditions - particularly during the pandemic, where guidance has changed regularly and been poorly communicated.
Currently, health and safety law requires employers to undertake individual risk assessment for each pregnant woman and to take action to remove risks. This may involve changes to working conditions and hours of work, provision of suitable alternative work or suspension on full pay.
But employers routinely ignore the rules and their enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive and Local Authorities is almost non-existent. This leaves pregnant women with nowhere to turn except an employment tribunal claim, simply to enforce their basic rights. As expected, few women take this route, which is lengthy, potentially costly and sours the relationship with employers.
As the country faces the prospect of further Covid variants and outbreaks, it’s imperative that the government take action to keep pregnant women safe at work.
Maternity Action’s new report “Unsafe and Unsupported” calls for immediate government support for paid maternity suspensions to ensure that pregnant women aren’t under pressure to work in unsafe environments. This would enable employers to keep their pregnant employers safe, without burdening them with the cost of a paid suspension.
Pregnant women have been failed throughout the pandemic, at every turn. The government must act now to protect them – or risk the lives of many more women and their babies.
Ros Bragg is the director of Maternity Action.
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