Being pregnant and working at the same time is stressful enough without having to fret about losing one?s rice bowl.
Even as a progressive goverment is actively promoting work-life balance, cases of unfair discrimination when it comes to promotion matters or salary negotiations for remain a sore point for many pregnant workers. An AsiaOne poll of 1,259 people in August 2007 revealed that some 67 per cent of AsiaOne readers feel that a woman's career is in jeopardy when she becomes pregnant.
While the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) assures that pregnant female employees can appeal to the Minister under Section 14 of the Employment Act for reinstatement, or compensation if they are dismissed unfairly at any stage of pregnancy, stories of pregnant employees who were unfairly dismissed, or even discriminated against upon returning to their jobs after maternity leave have cropped up in the media often enough.
What avenues of recourse are available to employees who have been subjected to such discrimination?
In the UK, the legal rights of pregnant workers are guaranteed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Employers should arrange for workplace assessments for pregnant employees in order to identify any aspects of the job which may endanger their health while pregnant. Full and part-time pregnant employees are also entitled to take paid time off to attend ante-natal classes and health check-ups.
Pregnant female workers should also continue to be given fair opportunities for promotion, retain their pay and job. So technically in the UK, you can claim discrimination if you are fired for being late for work due to a bout of morning sickness while you are pregnant.
Over in Australia, pregnant workers are entitled to a year off work regardless of one's length of service. They are also entitled to maternity pay if they have been working for their employers for 26 weeks and the baby is due by the 15th week.
Those with a shorter employment history in their companies can claim maternity allowance if they are up to date with their national insurance contributions. But Australian workers can be sacked while pregnant and it is perfectly legal as long as the sacking can be justified and has nothing to do with the pregnancy.
In Singapore, it is an offence under the Employment Act to dismiss or terminate an employee during her maternity leave.
The case becomes less clear when pregnant workers are still under probation. During this period, employers are able to terminate employees' services for other reasons, such as weak work performance.
But under the Employment Act, Section 81, it is unlawful for employers to terminate the services of these workers, and the latter may seek advice from MOM if they feel they have been unfairly dismissed. An official appeal to MOM on alleged unfair dismissal must be made within 2 months of the child's birth. For Union members, advice can be sought with the appropriate Union representative.
However, the current MOM schemes for legal assistance are only available to employees earning below $1,600 a month. Female executives and managers do not have access to recourse with the MOM. If they decide to pursue the matter, they can only do so through engaging legal advice privately, and the legal fees involved may prove prohibitive for them to proceed.
But are these measures enough to protect our pregnant colleagues' rights?
Ms Lim Mei Mei, Director of Executive Development & Membership Services of the Marketing Institute of Singapore believes discrimination against pregnant workers is more common in organizations which do not practise sound human resource management policy, especially where there are no formal performance appraisal systems in place.
Employees who work in these organizations will usually find themselves at a disadvantage as they may be terminated from their jobs because their job performance is not appraised formally and there is no proper documentation in place.
She observes: "Such employers find that the three-months maternity leave is a sufficient period of absence to justify that the employee is dispensable. This is heightened by the additional costs of hiring a replacement over the 3 months period."
Such companies may then resort to termination without grounds.
Ms Lim believes that employers and employees should reach a joint decision on how best to manage the third month of maternity leave. An alternative is to convert it into monetary compensation or into Child Sick Leave category. The Child Sick Leave option allows the employee to take leave intermittently and look after the child in its first year.
A shorter maternity leave period will also translate into lower cost for the employer and less disruption to the business operation.
In addition to being more aware of the various sources of assistance that are available in the countries you work, clarified performance management and family-friendly HR policies, it is also beneficial if the pregnant employee displays a certain level of commitment to her company, colleagues and job.
I truly appreciate my pregnant staff who are on maternity leave, but still help from home, talks to clients and delivers some of her duties.
Lionel Lee is Assistant Regional Director for Ross Human Directions. Ross Human Directions is an ASX-listed global HR services company and one of the leading resourcing companies with more than 4,000 professionals assigned to client projects around Asia Pacific.
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