In recent decades, various employment laws have strengthened the position and rights of women in the workplace, including women who are pregnant or who have recently become mothers. In the run-up to, and aftermath of, the 2016 Brexit referendum, various campaign groups voiced fears that leaving the EU could result in the erosion of many of these rights, which have a significant effect on sex equality, such as maternity leave and pay and parental leave.
Experts are largely in agreement, however, that these rights will be unaffected. This is because the UK already offers more generous rights than required by EU law and has progressively increased these entitlements throughout its time as a member state of the EU. To give some perspective, the EU requires member states to offer women 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, while the UK offers up to 52 weeks leave, 39 of which are paid.
Further to this, there are areas in which the EU offers no legal rights but the UK does. One of these is paternity leave, which is granted for two paid weeks in the UK. Although not a right for women, it is critical to facilitate fathers acting as the primary care provider if we are to level the playing field between men and women in both the home and the workplace. Two weeks of leave, however, is far from generous, particularly in comparison to the 52 offered to new mothers. In an attempt to narrow that gap, the UK has offered shared parental leave since 2015, whereby 50 weeks of leave can be divided between both parents as they please following the birth of their child. No such policy exists in EU law.
Pregnant women and working mothers who gave birth within the last 26 weeks are further protected under the Equality Act, which lists pregnancy and maternity as a protected characteristic. This means discrimination such as not giving a promotion or being sacked solely as a result of pregnancy or maternity status is illegal and will remain so.
Although existing protections are unlikely to be lost as a result of leaving the EU, it could nevertheless have an impact on strengthening or increasing those protections, which is desperately needed if we are to achieve greater equality between men and women. This comes from the financial hit that Brexit could cause, coupled with the massive increase in public borrowing necessitated by the pandemic. In the past week we have already seen the poor state of the economy used as justification for a paltry 1 per cent pay rise for NHS nurses.
The Green Party of England and Wales wants to increase parental leave to 22 months between both parents and increase pay to 90 per cent of the parent’s salary ‘up to a reasonable level’. This is a big increase from the statutory maternity pay of £151.20 per week, which is currently offered after the first six weeks of maternity leave. It is difficult to see under current circumstances how such progressive, family-oriented policies could be implemented when the government has such an easy ‘get out’ on hand.
It is therefore not the loss of legal protections that come with Brexit that should be cause for concern. Rather, we should be wary that the economic fallout of Brexit, in conjunction with the pandemic, will be used as a reason not to further improve the rights and entitlements afforded to pregnant women and working parents.