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  • Writer's pictureGavin Booth

A wreck at thirty

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

If you ever had any doubts about why employment rights and equality are essential, then perhaps the text below will illustrate why they are. We need robust laws to protect workers rights and to prevent them from being exploited.

The most substantial and worthwhile rights have come from the EU, especially in the promotion of equality. Before becoming a member of the EU, in the UK, pregnancy was viewed as an illness and a woman could be dismissed because she was pregnant. EU law now prohibits that.

The text below illustrates how it used to be and why it's important to maintain and improve the rights we have. It was written during Queen Victoria's reign by a mother who had given birth to seven children and who had suffered one miscarriage. Whatever your views about equality rights are, perhaps the text will demonstrate why they are so vitally important.

A wreck at thirty

"I had seven children and one miscarriage in ten years and three months. This left me at the age of thirty, a complete wreck. My great difficulty was during pregnancy, suffering very severely from sickness, so much so, indeed, that on two occasions, I was under the doctor the whole of the time. The doctor gave me his services free. I tremble even now to think what my life would have been but for his kindness to me. I could not have paid for a doctor, as wages were only £36 a year, and I had to pay £10 a year rent out of that. When I look back upon those days, I wonder how we did live.

My last child was born a delicate, weak child, who suffered from malnutrition until she was eleven months old, and at her birth, the doctor told me I should never have another strong and healthy baby. That women should only have a child every three years, and rest at least a month after confinement. He knew I could not give myself the rest I needed, for I could not afford to pay anyone to look after my home and children. I had to rely upon some child of thirteen who was able to leave school, and whose parents were glad of the 25s 6d a week I could ill afford to pay.

I have been forced on many occasions to do things no woman lying-in should have done. I have left my bed on the tenth day, and have had to do the family washing as early as a fortnight. I do feel most strongly that women should be able to get advice and help during pregnancy. Our children are a valuable asset to the nation, and the health of the woman who is doing her duty in rearing the future race should have a claim upon the national purse. Ample provision should be made so that she could give of her best."

Things are no longer as bad as this, although matters never improved in the workplace in any significant way until the UK joined the EEC (now the EU). Here is a list of how equality rights for women in particular and other groups have improved since joining the EU and how they might be affected post-BREXIT:

1. Maternity rights

As a result of EU law, employers in the UK must provide pregnant workers with at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave, and two weeks of this must be taken before childbirth.

The EU Pregnant Workers Directive was instrumental in ensuring the health and safety of pregnant women and new mothers at work. It became law in 1993, and resulted in pregnant women having the right to paid time off for antenatal care (which was extended to many pregnant agency workers by another EU directive in 2011). In the UK, employers must give pregnant employees the option of parental leave and provide for paid time off for antenatal appointments during working hours.

As a result of EU law, employees are entitled to return to their jobs after maternity leave, and they can have extra time off for family reasons, for example, accidents, or if a child is ill.

EU law made dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy illegal and ensured pregnant, and breastfeeding workers were not obliged to perform duties that would jeopardise their health or safety.

2. Shared parental leave

EU law gives men the same equality rights as their partners to take parental leave. Men and women have equal rights to at least 18 weeks of parental leave for each child.

3. Equal pay

EU law provides pay safeguards for UK employees that otherwise would not exist. Equality is enshrined in several EU Directives such as the Equal Pay Directive 1975 and Equal Treatment Directive 1976, which means that the principle of equal pay can be relied upon directly by individuals in the Employment Tribunal.

4. Prohibition of discrimination based on gender

The EU Charter that binds the UK to abide by the prohibition of discrimination based on gender amounts to a vital human right. However, the UK government has recently voted to scrap the Charter. As a result, this right may become diluted if we leave the EU. You can read more about this here.

5. The EU ensures the safety of women across borders

EU law ensures restraining orders issued in one EU member state is recognised in all other member states.

6. Carers and the EU

The EU prohibits discrimination against employees due to their carer status or relationship with a disabled person (Equality Directive 2000/43/EC & Coleman v Attridge Law, 2008 ECJ judgment). 58% of the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK are women – which means that women are particularly protected.

7. Enforcement

Under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and underpinning EU laws, women can refer to the European Court of Justice if they need to enforce their rights. The UK government's withdrawal bill removes the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Without access to the ECJ, women and other groups will be exposed and more vulnerable, with fewer avenues to enforce their rights. For example, employers must actively transpose EU law, and if an employer has breached EU law, this point can be referred to the ECJ.

In addition, women and other groups will no longer automatically benefit from future equality developments under EU law.

8. EU member states must abide by equality protections

Post-BREXIT, politicians will be free to remove and diminish protections for women and other groups, if they consider them too burdensome on employers, or too expensive, or undesirable for any other reasons. For example, in 2012, a Conservative MEP wanted to scrap pregnant workers and agency workers regulations, calling them "barriers to employment" – he is now a Brexit minister. You can read more about this here.

9. LGBT+ rights

Being a member of the European Union has strengthened the UK's commitment to progress on LGBT+ rights. For example, campaigners used EU laws and structures to decriminalise gay sex in Northern Ireland. UK trade unionists also used EU law to make it illegal to discriminate against gay people in the workplace.

The ECJ and ECHR have ruled that firing an employee for undertaking gender reassignment was sex discrimination. This has been instrumental in protecting trans rights at work. You can read one of many cases here.

While not an institution of the EU, our current membership requires us to be part of the ECHR, but the current government wants to leave this post-Brexit.

10. Funding for women-led projects

The EU has provided more than £8 billion in funding for UK women-led projects over the last decade, which will be lost post-BREXIT.

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