Discrimination against pregnant women is still prevalent in the workforce, writes Meera Murugesan
WOMEN still face challenges and unfair treatment at the workplace when they become pregnant, according to a recent survey by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).
The online poll, called the Workplace Discrimination Survey, polled 222 women from across the country to shed light on workplace discrimination against pregnant women.
More than 40 per cent of those polled admitted to having experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy. The survey also revealed the top five ways employers discriminated against pregnant women. These included measures such as making their positions redundant, denying them promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demoting them and terminating their jobs.
WAO launched the survey to promote respect, protection and equal rights for women in the workplace, specifically for pregnant women.
A woman should be free to choose if and when to have children says Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of WAO.
She should not have to fear losing her job because she has a baby and local policy makers must ensure that employers are not discriminating against pregnant women.
“Terminating, demoting or failing to hire or promote a woman because she is pregnant is gender discrimination,” stresses Sumitra.
VIOLATION OF RIGHTS
Both the Federal Constitution and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), prohibit gender discrimination.
When employers penalise a woman for having children, they are violating her human rights, specifically her right to have a family if she so chooses, her right to work and her right to be appropriately appraised and remunerated, explains Sumitra.
According to the survey, employers also discriminated against pregnant women by the questions they asked them during the job application process.
Almost 40 per cent of women polled were asked by interviewers if they were pregnant or had plans to become pregnant in the near future.
Sumitra says it is discriminatory for a prospective employer to ask questions about a woman’s marital status, pregnancy status or plans to get pregnant, sexual orientation or age during the job application process.
The survey also revealed that 20 per cent of women had had their job applications rejected or job offers revoked after they disclosed their pregnancy.
In addition, survey results also showed that 30 per cent of women would actually delay their pregnancy plans for fear of losing their jobs or promotion opportunities.
“Currently, Malaysia does not have laws which ban discriminatory interview questions but it’s high time we implemented such laws. Countries such as the United States have adopted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to protect women’s rights in the workplace. This act ensures that employers treat pregnant women in the same manner as other employees with similar abilities or inabilities,” says Sumitra. The PDA also forbids employers from discriminating against pregnant women in terms of pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs and trainings.
Sumitra adds that Malaysia needs to work towards this direction. However, what is more alarming is that only about one in eight women who lost their jobs or denied promotions due to pregnancy actually lodged formal complaints.
According to Sumitra this is an issue as many women do not know their rights. They may not know the available platforms to seek justice and even if they do, they may fear backlash and harassment for speaking up.
Currently, if an employer dismisses a woman because she is pregnant, she can lodge an unfair dismissal complaint with the human resources department at her workplace or at the Industrial Relations Office.
A complaint with the latter could culminate in a hearing at the Industrial Court. However, a woman can only seek recourse under the Employment Act 1955 if she has not received any maternity-related benefits guaranteed by the Act.
If employers treat her unfairly at work, including side-lining her because she is pregnant, she can choose to leave employment and claim constructive dismissal.
Sumitra explains that current legal protections in place are very poor. Both the Employment Act 1955 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967 provide very minimal relief, if any for such cases. There is no legislation which specifically prohibits discrimination against women in the workplace.
Although Malaysia ratified CEDAW in 1995, it has not adopted many elements of the convention into domestic legislation. As a result, currently, there is no means to enforce these provisions in Malaysia.
Sumitra says there have been court cases that decided the equality provision in article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution only applies to public sector employees. There is yet to be any progress seen in the private sector.
“We urgently need a Gender Equality Act to protect women employees, including those in the private sector. The Workplace Discrimination Survey is one of the many ways in which WAO advocates for gender equality and we will continue our work,” says Sumitra.