Guest blog by Rosalind Bragg, Director of Maternity Action
Maternity Action’s work centres on protecting the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace. As a member of the WBTi Core Group, Maternity Action was responsible for gathering most of the information on Indicator 4, “Maternity Protection in the workplace.” They have very kindly allowed us to republish their blog on the current status of breastfeeding in the workplace here during UK National Breastfeeding Weeks.
The original blog can be found on Maternity Action’s website here, along with a range of resources on maternity rights. Follow Maternity Action for updates on their campaigns on this and other important maternity rights.
The right to breastfeeding breaks and facilities is a gap in the policy framework to support new parents to balance work and family responsibilities. The current review of Shared Parental Leave policies is an opportunity to remedy this omission.
On May 15, we presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding focusing on Maternity Action’s campaigning against pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the particular challenges facing breastfeeding women in the workplace.
Women in the UK who wish to combine work and breastfeeding have very weak legal protections. Health and safety regulations provide breastfeeding women with the right to a place to rest and to a health and safety risk assessment. While some employers may offer regular breaks to breastfeed or express milk and a private space in which to do so, these are not required by law.
For most women, flexible working requests are the only legal avenue to seek adjustments to their working conditions to facilitate breastfeeding. Employers must seriously consider flexible working requests but can refuse them if they have a good business reason for doing so. On our advice line, we regularly hear from women struggling to negotiate flexible working arrangements on return to work. Employers can, and often do, reject reasonable requests for adjustments to working conditions.
Many of the UK’s trading partners have more constructive approaches to balancing breastfeeding and work. Germany provides paid breastfeeding breaks and facilities while the US provides unpaid breaks. Australia offers an alternative form of protection by prohibiting discrimination on grounds of breastfeeding. These are just a few examples. It is unsurprising that the recent World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) review rated the UK 67th out of 91 countries on its law, policy and programmes that support breastfeeding women.
The current review of the Shared Parental Leave scheme provides an opportunity for Government to reconsider its approach to breastfeeding and work. In 2013, when debates were underway on the new scheme, Maternity Action campaigned for a statutory right to breastfeed on return to work. While this did result in ACAS guidance on the issue, legal protections were not forthcoming.
It is extraordinary that a scheme to encourage parents to share leave from their child’s first weeks should pay so little attention to breastfeeding. The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and breastfeeding in conjunction with solid food thereafter. Given the absence of legal protections for breastfeeding women, the vast majority of women who share leave will need to stop breastfeeding prior to return to work. This reduces the number of women prepared to share leave with their partner and also contributes to the UK’s low rate of breastfeeding.
Whether women breastfeed or not, and for how long, is a decision for each woman to make. The role of the law is to remove impediments to breastfeeding, enabling women to make decisions based on their own needs, not the convenience of their employers or other equally irrelevant factors. It is long past time that UK employment law caught up with that of its trading partners and provided formal legal protection for breastfeeding on return to work.