Working parents

Employees in Britain work on average the longest hours in the EU. This
"long hours culture", recently deplored again by the Government,
arguably impacts most on working parents (and their children). The much-vaunted
impact of the Working Time Regulations 1998, limiting average working hours to
48 per week, has not had any dramatic effect. The regulations are either
ignored or have been opted-out of, in favour of the ability to earn premium
overtime rates.

Main protections

The protection of pregnant women has now arguably become complete. The
moment a woman becomes pregnant, she has a "protected" status, which
means that no decision can be taken as a result of her pregnancy to her
detriment. Also, if she becomes redundant during maternity leave, she is
automatically put first in line for any alternative vacancies, regardless of
whether or not she is the best candidate. Failure to take on a pregnant woman
for a vacant post, due to her pregnancy, is direct sex discrimination. This is
so even if the job in question is a temporary, fixed-term one (such as
Christmas cover) and even if the woman cannot complete the job due to her
maternity leave.

Some employers would argue this is going too far, but it is the result of a
social policy originating many years ago in the European Commission, which is
upheld consistently by the European Court of Justice. In recent years, working
parents have been boosted by the introduction of parental leave, which now is
to cover all working parents with children under 5 at 15 December 1999 and
thereafter. The right to take paid leave for family emergencies also helped.

Proposed further protection

The Employment Bill published in November seeks to increase the protection
for working parents. Maternity benefits are to be extended both in terms of the
level of maternity pay and the length of leave. Two weeks paid paternity leave
is to be introduced for working fathers. There will also be a new statutory
right for working parents to request to work part-time, and for the employer to
enter into a set consultation procedure for considering such requests. Unlike
the December 1999 changes, none of these are as a result of Europe.

Employers need to consider now to deal with the growing perception among
working non-parents that their parent colleagues are being treated better than
them.

From a legal point of view, employers should now be seeing how they can
incorporate the proposed new changes, due to be in place by April 2003. This
could mean amending existing maternity policies, and perhaps renaming them
parental policies, given the new rights to be given to working fathers.

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