Small employers in Britain need more help and support in dealing with pregnant employees if the position of pregnant women in the workplace is to improve.
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has made three key recommendations to the government that it argues will support employers and ensure fair treatment for pregnant women.
Most significant is the suggestion – long demanded by employers – that women give a clear indication of their planned date of return from maternity leave, where this is possible.
Uncertainty over return dates is a major bugbears for employers, with the Institute of Directors last year going as far as to say that this single issue does more than any other to undermine relations between employees and employers.
The EOC also called for greater support for business, specifically financial support for micro employees and access to HR support for small employers, plus the provision of a written statement of maternity rights and responsibilities to every pregnant woman at her first antenatal visit, with a tear-off copy to hand to her employer.
The EOC's report claims that unless the current situation changes, one million pregnant women are likely to experience discrimination at work over the next five years.
Women sacked for being pregnant are losing out on £12m in statutory maternity pay every year and replacing these women costs employers £126m every year, it said.
Meanwhile an online survey conducted by Croner Consulting in November 2004 found that eight out of 10 HR professionals would think twice before employing a women of childbearing age.
"It is shocking that 1million women over the next 5 yrs could find themselves sacked, demoted, bullied or isolated at work simply for having a baby," said Jenny Watson, Acting Chair of the EOC.
"Pregnancy discrimination has a huge impact on their lives, but the harm it does to our economy affects us all."
"It's time for honesty about the scale of the problem. Employers - particularly small businesses - need more help in managing pregnancy at work if they are to reap the benefits of retaining pregnant staff. More than a quarter of businesses cannot name a single maternity entitlement."
Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson said that while the vast majority of employers understand, and see the need for the fair, effective legal protection that already exists, those few who treat pregnant women unfairly are breaking the law and damaging their businesses.
"The EOC has some valuable suggestions for encouraging employers to stay in touch with women during maternity leave, and ideas for raising awareness of rights and responsibilities. I will be considering these alongside the responses to the Work and Families consultation and announcing conclusions in the Autumn," he added.
Stephen Alambritis, Head of Parliamentary Affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), also welcomed the report's "realistic approach to the problems faced by smaller firms in managing pregnancy."
"The proposal to allow employers to ask the question about a return date will give firms the much needed certainty they desire in running the business.
"Of equal importance is the recommendation to Government for financial support for micro employers to cover such items as recruitment costs."