Law guide: Employment

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Pregnancy and maternity

Pregnancy and maternity


Anti-discrimination legislation provides that you cannot treat workers less favourably because:

  • They are pregnant
  • They have suffered from a pregnancy related illness
  • They are on compulsory maternity leave
  • They are on ordinary or additional maternity leave
  • They have exercised or intend to exercise their right to take ordinary or additional maternity leave

Discrimination in the workplace is unlawful in all aspects of employment, including the recruitment process, status, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, redundancy, dismissal and even post-employment.

Types of discrimination

Direct discrimination

This is where a worker is treated less favourably than she was treated before she became pregnant or before she has (or planned to) exercise her statutory maternity leave rights. There is no need for the worker to be compared with another worker.

For example, if a worker is sacked because she has told you that she is pregnant or might start a family.

You could be liable for direct discrimination even if you did not intend to discriminate against your employee.

The only available defence to a direct discrimination claim is proving that there was no discrimination.


Victimisation happens when a worker is treated less favourably than another worker because:

  • They have asserted their right not to be discriminated against because they are pregnant, or have exercised or intend to exercise their rights to maternity leave and have made a complaint
  • They gave evidence in a complaint of discrimination because of pregnancy or the right to maternity leave
  • They did anything else under the anti-discrimination legislation relating to their rights to maternity leave and/or their pregnancy
  • They have alleged that you or another worker have contravened legislative provisions regarding discrimination because of pregnancy or the right to maternity leave
  • You know that they intended to do or you suspect that they have done or intend to do any of these things

For example, a worker might have grounds for a victimisation claim if they are prevented from going on training courses; subjected to unfair disciplinary action; or excluded from company social events because they took any of the above mentioned action.

Tribunal claims

If you dismiss an employee, or if an employee resigns because they claim that they have been discriminated against by you, then they may make a complaint of unfair dismissal to an Industrial Tribunal. In addition, they may also claim for damages on the grounds of discrimination, which they will be able to do regardless of their length of service.

A complaint must be presented within three months from the date of the act complained of, unless the tribunal considers that it is fair and reasonable in the circumstances to hear the claim outside that period.

While there is a limit on the amount of compensation a tribunal can award for unfair dismissal, there is no limit in cases of unlawful discrimination.

Further information

You can get more information from the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), which offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

You can call the LRA helpline. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland can help with advice regarding discrimination and equal opportunities.

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