A Melbourne retailer has apologised for breaching anti-discrimination laws, after it requested a female employee significantly reduce her hours or resign after falling pregnant.
Homewares retailer Good Housekeeping Australia is paying the woman $2,000 compensation, formally apologising and revamping its workplace policies.
In 2011 the employee told the owner and operator of the Cranbourne store, Hui Zhou, she was pregnant. Zhou then sent her a text message stating: “You have a baby now, and I can’t let you too tires (sic)”.
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The employee, who was in her 20s, was later told her hours would be cut to seven per week from between 23-27 and if this wasn’t suitable she would have to resign.
The employee consequently resigned in what Fair Work calls a “constructive dismissal”.
Zhou has entered into an Enforceable Undertaking with the Fair Work Ombudsman, which removes the need for litigation.
Workplace lawyer with M + K Lawyers, Andrew Douglas, told SmartCompany these cases appear on a “fairly frequent” basis.
“It’s often because employers are fairly paternalistic and fearful when women fall pregnant,” he says.
“But there is overwhelming evidence that in most businesses, particularly big businesses, it is not difficult to comply with anti-discrimination laws.”
However, Douglas says small businesses can find complying with workplace laws harder than larger companies.
“In small businesses when people become pregnant there is often a limitation on what workers can do. Sometimes it becomes difficult to balance compliance with anti-discrimination laws with operational health and safety standards,” Douglas says.
The compensation payment of $2,000, Douglas says, is low compared to what the company could have had to pay if the case went to court as a general protection claim.
“General protection claims can be hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-discrimination cases.
“How much depends on what people earn, if you terminate someone when they’re four months pregnant and they have another three months where they could have worked, the loss can be quite significant,” Douglas says.
He says there are three key messages for small businesses from this case, including being aware the Fair Work Ombudsman is more active, knowing the damage such a finding can bring, and thinking through actions before acting due to an employee’s health.
Discriminatory behaviour can include dismissing or threatening to dismiss an employee, reducing an employee’s hours, denying training and promotion opportunities or refusing to employ, promote or train an employee.
Zhou, a Chinese immigrant, has agreed to place an advertisement detailing the breaches in The Daily Chinese Herald newspaper to raise awareness of pregnancy discrimination laws among the Chinese community in Australia.
The company will also develop processes for ensuring future compliance with workplace laws, commission annual professional workplace relations training for all directors for the next three years and prominently display a public notice detailing its breaches of workplace laws at its premises.
SmartCompany contacted Good Housekeeping Australia for comment but the business was not available prior to publication.
Since July 2009, there have been 30 FWO Enforceable Undertakings, recovering $5.4 million for more than 6,900 employees.