Watchdog eyes maternity discrimination

Fair Work Ombudsman cracks down on employers who discriminate against women requesting maternity leave after surge in complaints

September 21, 2009

The Fair Work Ombudsman is cracking down on employers who discriminate against women requesting maternity leave after a recent surge in ‘unfair’ termination complaints.

Chief Counsel Natalie James told the annual Workforce conference in Melbourne this morning that some employers are attempting to avoid their obligations to women when they return to work after the birth of a child.

She says the Agency has established a specialist anti-discrimination team to handle enquiries, and is already dealing with about 30 calls a week.

"In one case, a female employee has alleged that when she requested maternity leave, her employer refused and stated she had no entitlement as he intended to sell the business," she revealed.

"After the woman questioned her legal rights with the employer, he agreed to allow her to take the maternity leave. Eight months into her maternity leave, the woman claims her job was advertised in the paper. The advertisement did not state that the role was temporary.

"We investigated this matter and after explaining to the employer his responsibilities under the pregnancy discrimination protections of Section 351 of the Fair Work Act, the case has now been successfully resolved."

Under the new Fair Work Act, the Fair Work Ombudsman can investigate discrimination in the workplace and prosecute employers for contraventions of the legislation.

The workplace watchdog can investigate allegations of discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.

According to James, the Fair Work Ombudsman has received more than 90 discrimination complaints and is investigating more than 40 of them.

"Using our public reputation as a strong regulator, we intend to provide advice and education about discrimination. We will not only investigate complaints, but educate businesses on how to avoid discrimination in the workplace," she says.

"Our objective is to work towards eliminating systemic workplace discrimination, particularly the more insidious forms that impact on vulnerable employees."

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