Pregnant? You're fired

The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore received 112 pregnancy and maternity-related complaints this year compared to 84 in 2010

Discriminatory practices against pregnant employees are still occurring, according to Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) latest figures. In 2011, MOM received 112 pregnancy and maternity-related complaints compared to 84 in 2010. On average, there have been 97 complaints each year between 2006 and 2010, with the highest number recorded in 2009 (147).

However, a MOM spokesperson says that “not all of these relate to unfair dismissal as they also include retrenchments, contractually-expired cases, clarifications on eligibility for maternity leave benefits, and short payment of maternity benefits.”

In an article published in TODAY, Jeslin Neo wrote to say that she had been “unceremoniously retrenched by her employer” when she was three months pregnant. She found out about her pregnancy during her probation and even though she was reassured by the company that she would be treated fairly, her probation was extended and was eventually terminated. The company cited staff restructuring as a reason.

This is just one case of many that have been filed. In a country where the total fertility rate is a constant worry, discriminatory practices against pregnant employees needs to be looked into. Experts say that there are many reasons why some organisations have concerns about pregnant employees. Angeline Teo, MD and Principal Consultant, d’Oz International and PEPWorldwide Asia, says that “employers are concerned mainly with productivity issues, especially SMEs where resources and staff strengths may be lean.”

Corinna Lim, Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), notes that employers struggle when staff go on maternity leave or take time off when they experience difficulties during their pregnancy, and there may be a drop in productivity. Furthermore, “employers may have to modify an employee’s duties to ensure her safety and ability to carry out tasks when she is pregnant,” she explains.

However, she emphasises that employers should not assume that pregnancy prevents women from doing a good job or that childbearing workers are less committed to their jobs.

There is also contention regarding the Employment Act and whether it is sufficient in protecting pregnant employees. Complainants and experts highlight that currently the law protects employees for up to only six months of the pregnancy till the due date, and employers can take advantage of this.

Lim says that there are some loopholes in the Employment Act and pregnancy protection is only applicable after the end of the first trimester. “If an employee gets fired before the end of the first trimester, she may have no recourse against the employer and she will effectively be out of a job for at least 12 months.” She adds that Singapore needs an anti-discrimination law but in its absence, employees who have been discriminated against can approach MOM or Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP).

However, a MOM spokesperson says that pregnant employees are protected under the law against unfair dismissals and from being denied their maternity leave benefits. “Employers who dismiss their pregnant employees without sufficient cause within the last six months of pregnancy are required to pay the employee maternity benefits that she would have been entitled to, if not for the dismissal.”

Despite the controversy, there are numerous organisations that have been accommodating towards expectant mothers. Companies such as American Express offer flexible working arrangements to these employees. Other companies are helping this group of employees by training temporary workers or other staff to take over their duties for the short term.

Teo says that companies have sufficient time to allow pregnant employees to coach others to take over their duties. She recalls that in her organisation, she started forward planning when she first learned that one of her employees was pregnant. “I appointed an assistant to provide her with the support for field work and to help with the transition; the employee acted as a coach and transferred her knowledge and skills to her assistant. When she went on maternity leave, the work was done smoothly.”

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