Earlier this week, as the latest set of ONS employment data led ministers to proclaim the long-awaited return of real wages growth, the Financial Times noted that “not everything about working in the UK is rosy. More people than ever have minimum wage jobs, [and] work can be insecure.”
Indeed it can. While stronger than predicted job creation has been what the FT calls “the surprise hit of the past four years,” that has largely been fuelled by a rise in temporary and insecure work. And, as the National Gallery’s move to privatise its staff illustrates, this change in the nature of work is not confined to new jobs.
Such casualisation of the labour market brings many dangers, not least if you are trying to balance work with caring responsibilities, and especially if you are a pregnant woman or new mother. A major inquiry by the Equality & Human Rights Commission, due to report in March, seems set to confirm the conclusion of reports by Maternity Action (Overdue) and the TUC (The Pregnancy Test) that unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination is now more common in UK workplaces than ever before.
It is also harder than ever for women to challenge such discrimination: the supply of free legal advice has been decimated by funding cuts and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid. And, since July 2013, upfront fees of up to £1,200 to pursue an employment tribunal claim for sex or pregnancy discrimination have had a devastating impact on women’s access to justice.
Bringing a tribunal claim has always been a daunting challenge for pregnant women and new mothers: the odds are stacked against them at a time when they need to protect their own and their baby’s health, and when any savings are at a premium. But the introduction of hefty tribunal fees has only served to further deter women with well-founded claims from taking legal action.
The overall number of tribunal cases has fallen to one-third of its pre-fees level, and sex or pregnancy discrimination claims are down by 80 per cent. On average, each of the UK’s 1.2m employers now faces a tribunal claim just once every 58 years, and a sex or pregnancy discrimination claim just once every 330 years. This is a charter for dinosaur and rogue employers.
There is broad consensus, including the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and other employer groups, that the coalition government got it badly wrong on fees, and that scrapping or at least reducing the fees to a nominal level has to be a priority for the government elected in May.
The new government also needs to deliver a significant injection of funding into the specialist information and advice services women need to help protect their rights. Pregnancy and childbirth not being everyday events, awareness and understanding of the associated rights and benefits is poor. So proper legal advice and support make a huge difference to women’s experiences.
However, removing such barriers to justice will not be enough. We will not eradicate sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination, or close the gender pay gap, while the division of responsibility for childcare between women and men remains so unequal.
Put simply, we need more shared parenting – which means more men taking parental leave. And that requires a stronger right to flexible working, as well as a better supply of good quality, part-time or otherwise flexible jobs. The next government should adopt a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector – Camden Council has shown how this can be done – and encourage the private sector to follow suit.
It also requires a new national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years. And ministers should consider a new legal right to a period of ‘adjustment leave’, enabling men and especially women to weather a major change or crisis in their caring responsibilities without giving up work.
As fiscally challenging as it might seem at first glance, the next government also needs to make a start on raising the ludicrously low rate at which statutory maternity and paternity leave is paid, to at least the minimum wage and, ultimately, to a living wage. Otherwise, the ‘mummy track’ will continue to be a long, dangerous and lonely road.
Richard Dunstan is a project officer at Maternity Action