Tories urged not to betray working women by ditching employment bill

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A coalition of campaigners has urged the UK government not to betray working women by ditching its promises to clamp down on sexual harassment and workplace pregnancy discrimination in its flagship employment bill.

Before the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, campaigners are calling on the government to push forward with the bill, which was promised in 2019 and promoted as the way to protect UK workers after Britain left the EU.

Unions and campaigners have reacted with fury to reports that the bill has been shelved, saying the failure to act on promised protections risks “turning the clock back” for women at work.

Frances O’Grady, the secretary general of the Trades Union Congress, said: “Everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work. But too many women are discriminated against because they are pregnant, pushed out of work because they have caring responsibilities and too many still experience sexual harassment at work.

“If ministers don’t announce the employment bill in the Queen’s speech, they are abandoning working women.”

The TUC, which called the shelving of the bill a betrayal of working people, has joined forces with the Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, and the Women’s Budget Group to push for its revival.

The government had said its employment bill, promised before the UK formally left the EU as the central mechanism to safeguard workers’ rights, would make the country “the best place in the world to work” after Brexit.

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It promised to make employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment, as well as extending redundancy protections for pregnant women and making flexible working the default, unless employers had a good reason to refuse it. It also promised the right to a week’s leave for unpaid carers and paid leave for parents with children needing neonatal care.

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But Cabinet Office officials have stopped working on the bill, meaning it is unlikely to make the speech, the Financial Times reported, quoting three unnamed civil servants.

The chair of Maternity Action, Heather Wakefield, said the employment bill had been the government’s only response to research in 2016 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which found that that pregnancy and maternity discrimination was rife in Britain’s workplaces, with 390,000 women experiencing discrimination.

“Abandoning that commitment now, by shelving the employment bill, would mean the government has wasted six years talking about – but not actually doing anything to tackle – such discrimination,” she said.

Mary-Ann Stephenson, the director of the Women’s Budget Group, said the pandemic had revolutionised attitudes to flexible and hybrid working, yet the government had missed an opportunity to level the playing field for working mothers.

“Failing to deliver this bill is failing to deliver for women,” she said. “Care is the root of much of the discrimination women face – this bill would have provided vital protections.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it could not comment on the content’s of the Queen’s speech. They said the government was committed to creating “a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy” to delivers on the “ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work”, which included ensuring women’s rights in the workplace were protected.

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