The Equality Tribunal (the Tribunal) has directed that an employer pay €52,000.00 in compensation to a former employee after it held that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of gender and victimised1. The Tribunal awarded €26,000 in respect of the discrimination and €26,000 in respect of the victimisation. The award is equivalent to one year's salary.
The claimant was employed as a business development manager for a branch of the business. She became pregnant and was informed of her maternity benefit entitlements which were to include full pay for 20 weeks. She was subsequently transferred to another business entity which did not pay maternity benefits. Shortly after commencing her maternity leave she was informed by telephone that she was being made redundant at very short notice. Having enquired about her legal entitlements, she informed the respondent that it would be illegal for her to accept any final settlement in relation to redundancy whilst on maternity leave. She also indicated that she would be taking a case to the Rights Commissioner to assert her entitlements.
The claimant alleged that following this announcement she was then victimised. Her laptop and mobile phone connection were cut off. The Tribunal found that the complainant was not dismissed during the protected period. She was however threatened with dismissal at the beginning of her maternity leave and this was only withdrawn when the complainant told the respondent she could not be dismissed whilst she was on maternity leave.
The Tribunal found that the threat of dismissal made whilst the complainant was on maternity leave amounted to direct discrimination on the ground of her gender in relation to her conditions of employment. Further the actions of the company in demanding company property back whilst she was still an employee and following her announcement that she was going to make a complaint to the Rights Commissioner was held to amount to victimisation.
The Tribunal followed the well-established body of case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, confirming that the entire period of pregnancy and maternity leave is a protected period. This protected status means that dismissal is prohibited on the grounds of pregnancy and dismissal of a pregnant employee during that period can only occur in exceptional circumstances unrelated to pregnancy or maternity. This special protection is designed to minimise the potentially harmful effects the risk of dismissal may have on the physical and mental state of pregnant employees and those who have recently given birth.
From an Irish perspective, the case further copper fastens the approach of the Tribunal in penalising employers who might in anyway interfere with the protected status afforded to pregnant employees and those on maternity leave.