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Spotlight on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace

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While the government’s universal paid parental leave scheme is on the horizon, the issue of pregnancy discrimination is now under scrutiny by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).

The FWO and the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission have launched a national campaign aimed at helping women identify and avoid pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.  Information packs have been sent to hospitals, GP’s and other health service providers all around Australia to inform pregnant women of their rights.

The FWO’s specialist anti-discrimination division has powers to inspect, investigate and prosecute employers who may be engaging in discriminatory conduct, including pregnancy discrimination.  A successful prosecution may lead to compensation for the victim, and severe penalties on the employer.

Pregnancy discrimination can include a range of employer behaviours, including:

  • Failing to let an employee take parental leave
  • Declining to keep a job open
  • Demotion during pregnancy or on return from parental leave
  • Refusing to promote an employee because she is pregnant
  • Threatening to engage in any of the acts above

In one recent FWO intervention, an employee returned from maternity leave to find that her title and client base had been changed, affecting her ability to secure her bonus.  The employer immediately rectified its processes for all employees returning from maternity leave, avoiding prosecution.

On the other hand, the FWO recently launched its first pregnancy discrimination case against Wongtas Pty Ltd, a NSW commercial printing business.

MST’s Recommendations:

  • Employers should ensure that a consistent and detailed discrimination policy is in place and that appropriate managers are properly trained to avoid discriminating against any employees.
  • Employers should be aware of the National Employment Standard providing employees with over 12 months service an indispensable entitlement to 12 months unpaid parental leave, and a request for a further 12 months unpaid leave that may only be refused on reasonable business grounds.

MST has extensive experience in assisting its clients with complying with the most current workplace relations laws, including advice relating to workplace discrimination.  Please contact one of our Workplace Relations lawyers for further information.

Authors: Charles Cody and Chao Ni