By Rosalind Bragg
Director, Maternity Action
Providing women with a clear legal right to continue breastfeeding on return to work should be a no-brainer for the UK Government. The Department of Health recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for six months and then breastfed in conjunction with solid food, mirroring the World Health Organisation position. Bringing employment law into line with public health recommendations should be a simple matter, yet the Government continues to drag its heels.
A quick glance at maternity protections in other European countries, shows that the UK is something of an outlier. Breastfeeding breaks are enshrined in law in 36 of the European countries surveyed and the vast majority of these breaks are paid. The UK, by comparison, has no statutory right to breastfeeding breaks, paid or unpaid.
Current legal protection for breastfeeding
This is not to say that there is no legal protection for breastfeeding in the UK. It is possible, in some cases, to use health and safety law to argue for working arrangements which facilitate breastfeeding. The recent EasyJet case is an example of this. Women can also make a flexible working request for changes to their working hours and conditions which allow them to breastfeed. But flexible working requests can be refused by the employer and the health and safety protections are limited in their scope. For many women, the current legal framework does not deliver the protection they require.
When Maternity Action has raised our concerns with Government, we have often been reminded about the generous period of maternity leave in the UK. We are certainly appreciative of the 12 months leave entitlement, but we are also very aware that there are very good reasons why women would return to work without taking their full year of leave. UK statutory maternity pay is quite modest by international standards. After six weeks at 90% of income, it drops to the low flat rate of £140 per week for 33 weeks, which is below the minimum wage.
Maternity pay is not the only factor leading to women taking less than their 52 weeks of maternity leave. High rates of maternity discrimination are prompting women to return early out of fear for their job. The introduction of Shared Parental Leave has enabled women to share up to 50 weeks of their maternity leave with their partners. There are also many women working in the gig economy who don’t have leave entitlements, placing their livelihood at risk if they take extended breaks.
Support the Action Plan from the Alliance for Maternity Rights
Maternity Action fed our concerns about workplace maternity protections into the WBTi report for the UK. We have also incorporated the call for a statutory right to breastfeed at work into the Action Plan developed by the Alliance for Maternity Rights, a coalition of parenting groups, unions, advice services and health professionals convened by Maternity Action which works to end maternity discrimination. We held a series of Parliamentary events to give profile to our call for action on maternity rights at work.
Following the announcement of the general election, Maternity Action produced a manifesto calling for each of the political parties to protect maternity rights. Key amongst our manifesto asks is a statutory right to breastfeed in the workplace. The election offers a good opportunity to raise the profile of this issue with Parliamentarians. You can help by contacting candidates in your area, asking them to commit to support the manifesto. You can email your candidate through Maternity Action’s website and find other candidates online. Protecting breastfeeding rights should be a no-brainer.
WBTI UK Report: Gaps and Recommendations on Maternity Protection in the Workplace
Rosalind Bragg is the Director of Maternity Action, a national charity advising pregnant women, new mothers and their families about rights at work, the benefits system, breastfeeding rights and access to support services. Since she joined the organisation in 2008, she has led campaigns to challenge pregnancy discrimination at work, improve support for asylum seeking women and to ensure access to maternity care for vulnerable migrant women.
Rosalind has worked in policy and management roles in the voluntary sector and civil service in the UK and Australia focusing on social justice and human rights. She has worked predominantly in the areas of employment, health and migration.