Until now, most women in employment have faced a real and often difficult choice between the desire to have a family and the wish to stay in paid employment. The former "marriage bar" has been replaced by a "maternity bar", less obvious but no less effective. For too long an expectant working mother has had no right to return to her work after her confinement. In addition she often suffered financial hardship because of her loss of income. I felt this was a situation which had to be rectified forthwith. Since taking up office, it has been my concern that there should be no further delay in taking action; that this Bill should be brought forward in the shortest possible time consistent with its meeting the standards required of such an important measure by the Government. That those standards have been well met was, I believe, reflected in the all-party welcome given to the Bill in the other House. The Bill entitles a woman to maternity leave from her employment and to return to work afterwards. Its provisions, together with the new maternity allowance scheme proposed by the Minister for Social Welfare, represent a major advance in the welfare of expectant working mothers and eliminates a further barrier to the full participation of women in the life of the nation.
It is true to say that certain existing statutory provisions give some measure of protection to an expectant working mother. In labour legislation such protection is included in the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977, and the Redundancy Payments Act of 1979. The Unfair Dismissals Act protects a woman, subject to certain conditions, from dismissal solely on account of her pregnancy, but its protection ceases at the point where she has to give up work in order to have her baby. The Redundancy Payments Act, 1979, provides that an employee does not break her continuity of service where she stops work for up to 13 weeks, during which she has a baby. In addition, the Employment Equality Act, 1977, permits an employer to give special treatment to an employee in connection with pregnancy or childbirth, despite its general prohibition on discrimination on grounds of sex or marital status. Finally, under social welfare legislation, maternity allowance is payable to a woman who satisfies the relevant social insurance contribution conditions.
These provisions are, however, too disparate and limited to be considered as an adequate scheme of maternity protection for the growing number of women in employment. They do not give entitlement to take maternity leave and to return to work afterwards. Neither do they confer the related right to job security during absence on maternity leave. I consider these three rights are essential to an adequate scheme of maternity protection.
Many individual employers and their employees have negotiated schemes for maternity leave, on a voluntary basis. However, the majority of female employees do not benefit from such schemes. In view of this, I believe the Government have a responsibility to take action, hence this Bill.
When proposals for protective legislation are being formulated, it is vital to bear in mind the views of both sides of industry. In addition, where legislation specifically relating to women is concerned, the views of the Council for the Status of Women must be borne in mind. Therefore, both at the inception of proposals for this Bill and during its further development, full consultations were held with representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Federated Union of Employers. I am confident that this Bill accommodates the interests of both employers and employees. The Bill has also been welcomed by the Council for the Status of Women. For many years, the council have been pressing for recognition, in law, that working women have the right to take maternity leave. The submissions from the council have stressed the need for legislative action to give effect to the recommendation on maternity leave which is contained in the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women.
I would like to emphasise here the great care taken in the Bill to facilitate the employer in the efficient running of his business. The Bill, therefore, requires the employee to notify her employer in writing, at appropriate stages, of her intentions. For instance, she must give at least four weeks' notice of her intention to take maternity leave. In addition, the Bill permits maximum flexibility as regards the employee's return to work; an employer must give her the same job or its equivalent. If that alternative is not reasonably practicable for him, he may offer her a suitable alternative job on not less favourable conditions. I feel this flexibility will be of particular benefit to small employers.
The two key sections of the Bill before the House are section 8, giving a minimum period of 14 consecutive weeks' maternity leave, and section 20, which entitles an employee to return to work after her maternity leave. As regards allocation of the minimum period of maternity leave, under section 10, the employee must generally take four of the 14 weeks before her baby is due to arrive and a further four after its birth. The remaining six weeks to which she is entitled may be taken as she wishes. This flexibility will enable her to be guided by medical advice as to when she should stop or return to work. In case the baby is born earlier or later than expected, sections 12 and 13 have been devised to make appropriate provision.
If the employee wishes, she may take four weeks' additional maternity leave immediately after her maternity leave; it will be unpaid leave. This will, for instance, give her additional time to breast-feed her baby.
During her minimum period of maternity leave the employee will be treated, under section 15, so far as her employment rights are concerned, as if she were at work. For instance, her right to annual leave will be preserved. In addition, the new maternity allowance under the auspices of the Minister for Social Welfare will be payable during absence on maternity leave. Additional maternity leave differs from maternity leave in that the employee's rights are suspended and no maternity allowance is payable during it.
I appreciate that proper medical care plays a large part in protecting the health and welfare of both mother and child. Section 16 will enable the Minister to make regulations entitling a woman to take time off from her work to attend her doctor or clinic, before and after her confinement. When the Bill has been enacted, I will consult the FUE and the ICTU with a view to making regulations as a matter of urgency.
As I explained earlier, the Bill lays down that the employee must keep her employer fully notified of her intentions regarding her maternity leave and date of return to work. Under section 9, at least four weeks before she intends to go on leave she must give her employer written notification of the date she intends to begin her maternity leave. She must also show him a medical certificate confirming her pregnancy and stating the expected date of her confinement. Under section 14 she must also give four weeks' notice of her intention to take additional maternity leave. Her right to return to work under section 20 is subject to her having complied with the two notification procedures laid down by section 22. The requirement of a second notification confirming her intentions two weeks prior to her expected date of return is included in case an employee is prevented form fulfilling her intention to return to work by unforeseen circumstances. This will be of particular relevance where the employee notifies her employer before, or early in, her maternity leave of the expected date of her return.
The right to take maternity leave presumes the right to return to work afterwards. As I mentioned, the Bill provides for a certain flexibility in this regard. Under section 20 the employee is entitled to return to a job which is the same as, or equivalent to, the one which she held before her absence on maternity leave. However, where the employer does not find it reasonably practicable to permit her to do so, he may, by virtue of section 21, offer her a suitable alternative job. To protect the employee, this job must be on terms and conditions not substantially less favourable to her than her original job.
The employee is thus guaranteed the right to return to work after her leave. To reinforce this, the Bill grants additional measures of job security under section 17 and 18. Section 25 applies the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977, to deem it an unfair dismissal where the employee loses her job because she exercised her rights under this legislation. A dispute between an employer and employee for a reason other than unfair dismissal may, by virtue of section 27, be brought to a rights commissioner or the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
I feel it is essential to the successful operation of the Maternity Protection of Employees Act to make adequate publicity available. I have already put in train preparation of explanatory material, summarising the provisions of the Act and indicating necessary procedures, for example for notification. I will have this published as soon as possible after the Act comes into force.
The Bill now before the House covers entitlement to maternity leave and to return to work afterwards. It does not extend to maternity pay. This is being dealt with under the Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill, 1981, sections 9 to 11 of which set up a new maternity allowance scheme for employees on maternity leave under the Maternity Protection of Employees Act. Under this new scheme, an employee in insurable employment will receive a weekly allowance during her maternity leave: the amount will correspond to her normal net take-home pay, taking into account the value of any tax refund. While she is receiving the allowance, she will be credited with social insurance contributions. The allowance will be subject only to the employee's being on leave under this Act; in other words should she not find it possible to return to work, she will not forfeit her right to the new maternity allowance. The Minister for Social Welfare is dealing with the question of contribution conditions and allowances in the Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill, 1981 presently before the Dáil.
As it is the intention of the Government to have both pieces of legislation in operation from 6 April 1981 I commend the Bill to the House and urge Senators to give it a speedy passage.