The campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed has started a campaign to persuade the government to stop companies using non-disclosure agreements (NDA) to gag their employees.
The groups website contains upsetting stories of women made to leave work because they became pregnant or had a baby. Several studies have shown that expectant women or those with new babies are reluctant to take legal action because of the impact it will have on their new responsibilities.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission points to 54,000 women losing their jobs each year through pregnancy or maternity. More than three quarters of working mothers feel they are being discriminated against in the workplace – more than double what it was ten years ago. Despite this, less than 1% raise a complaint to an Employment Tribunal.
“It may not be possible to abolish NDAs. But we urgently need to get to grips with the scale of discrimination they are being used to hide.”
Pregnant then Screwed
Pregnant Then Screwed found more than 90% of the women they asked who had signed an NDA felt it was their only option and 70% said they felt signing the agreement had affected their mental health.
What does the law say?
Women are protected from unfair dismissal and detrimental treatment on grounds of pregnancy, childbirth or maternity leave under the Equality Act 2010 This includes women having the right to return to their job after maternity leave.
During the first six months of maternity leave, the right is an absolute one – employers must allow them to return to their original role. After six months, rights are a little weaker. If an employer can show that it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for them to return to their old job, then they have the right to return to a different role, which must be:-
- Suitable and appropriate for them (taking account of things like experience, seniority and skills); and
- On terms and conditions no less favourable than those which would have applied had they not taken maternity leave.
In reality this exception to the general right to return to the pre-maternity leave role is only likely to apply if there is a re-organisation.
The time limits women have to start the Tribunal process are tight – just three months from the act of discrimination to do something about it. Tribunals can extend this time, but only if they consider it “just and equitable” to do so. The longer the delay, the more difficult it will be to bring a claim.
What does the government say?
In 2016 the Women and Equalities Committee reported on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. They found that the number of new and expectant mothers who had been forced to leave their jobs had almost doubled since 2005 and it called upon the government to take urgent action.
It made a number of recommendations, including extending the three-month limitation date for bringing a Tribunal claim to six months.
Despite saying it was committed to tackling pregnancy discrimination, the government said there was insufficient evidence to show that the time limits for bringing a claim acted as a barrier.
This petition had over 56,000 signatures and was supported by Caroline Lucas MP who presented an early day motion in 2017 to extent the time limits that apply.
To ramp up the pressure Pregnant Then Screwed have organised another petition calling on the government to legislate to stop employers using non-disclosure agreements to mask bad behaviour. It believes the only way to achieve this is “by having a body which oversees and monitors NDAs. All NDAs must be reported to this body and they would have the power to investigate and act, if they have concerns.”