Eric Gilligan: UK workers’ rights on the line

The UK government has vowed to tackle 'shocking' discrimination against mothers. Picture: Craig Stephen

The UK government has vowed to tackle 'shocking' discrimination against mothers. Picture: Craig Stephen

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The European Union has been a major source of the development of workers’ rights in UK employment law.

But with the Brexit bill making progress through parliament, what will exit from the EU mean for UK workers and in particular expectant and new mothers in the workplace? Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward.

Concerns about the current level of protection for women in the UK have come from a number of sources. In March 2016, the Equalities & Human Rights Commission published research indicating that 77 per cent of the women surveyed reported discriminatory or negative experiences at work. Subsequently the women and equalities select committee issued a report making a host of recommendations designed to tackle perceived deficiencies in the regime.

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The government has recently published its response, which strikes a number of progressive notes, stating that it is “shocking” that women face pregnancy or maternity discrimination and that the government is “committed to taking action to tackle the problem”. It goes on to reaffirm that Brexit will not lead to a reduction in UK employment rights.

It is unclear, however, how compatible this undertaking is with Theresa May’s indication that her government would look to change the basis of the UK’s “economic model” should Brexit negotiations result in the UK being locked out of the single market.

The government maintains that the current level of protection is strong and points out that the UK has consistently gone beyond minimum EU requirements in this area, most recently extending rights with the introduction of shared parental leave. However, the government rejects most of the committee’s recommendations or indicates they will be subject to further review.

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The one area the government has committed to consider further, and bring forward proposals on, is that of protection from redundancy. The committee recommended that a system similar to that used in Germany is adopted, whereby expectant or new mothers may be made redundant only in very restricted circumstances. It remains to be seen how much further the government will be prepared to go to restrict UK employers’ discretion to make workers falling into this category redundant.

If we look beyond the rhetoric, it’s clear Brexit may have a significant impact on the level of protection in this most sensitive area of employment law, but one that will only reveal itself slowly.

While new and expectant mothers will welcome assurances that no reduction in employment protection will follow, it appears that severed from the EU, they may not enjoy the same development of rights as their continental counterparts, while the UK government’s commitment to substantial reform is strictly limited.

• Eric Gilligan is a partner and head of employment at law firm Stronachs

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