The EOC Announces Findings from the Study on Pregnancy Discrimination and Negative Perceptions Faced by Pregnant Women and Working Mothers in Small and Medium Enterprises
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has released today (4 May 2016) the findings from the “Study on Pregnancy Discrimination and Negative Perceptions Faced by Pregnant Women and Working Mothers in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)”, which reveal that unfavourable treatment of pregnant employees and working mothers is occurring in the Hong Kong SME workplace. Overall, over one in five (22%) employee respondents reported that they were discriminated during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or within the first year after returning to work from giving birth.
“Employment-related pregnancy discrimination remains one of the EOC’s most frequently received complaints under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance (SDO),” said Prof. Alfred CHAN Cheung-ming, the EOC Chairperson. “The majority of Hong Kong’s workforce are employed by SMEs, who may face different resource implications when dealing with staff’s pregnancy and maternity; therefore, it is imperative for the EOC to gain broader insights into this issue, so as to understand what solutions may be needed to address this comprehensively.”
The study’s fieldwork was undertaken in September 2015. The study features 1,500 successful interviews with female employees of SMEs (companies with < 50 employees) who, at the time of enumeration, were pregnant, had given birth within the past 12 months, or have children less than 6 years old. The research team also conducted 505 interviews with a random sample of employers/head of human resources departments of SMEs to collect information regarding their attitudes and views towards pregnant employees and working mothers.
A total of 21% of employee respondents claimed they encountered unfavourable treatment during their pregnancy while working in SMEs. The most frequently reported form was absences from work due to pre-natal medical check-ups not being counted as sick leave (58%), followed by being treated impolitely by the employer / colleagues because of pregnancy (51%).
Among the working mothers surveyed, 79% returned to their original work position after giving birth. Of these, 11% claimed that they faced unfavourabletreatment during the first 12 months after their return, most commonly their absence from work due to post-maternity medical check-ups was not counted as sick leave (38%), as well as impolite treatment from the employer / colleagues (35%). Additionally, one in five (20%) of working mother respondents said they encountered difficulties in applying for leave to take care of their young children.
Notably, the proportion of employee respondents who reported facing unfavourable treatment, both during and after pregnancy, was relatively higher from the restaurants and hotels industry, as well as among service workers / shop sales workers, and skilled and manual workers.
“Refusal to count pregnancy-related medical check-ups as sick leave may constitute pregnancy discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, in addition to possibly violating the Employment Ordinance,” noted Prof. Chan. “Denying accommodations for family care responsibilities, such as emergency leave to tend to one’s child, without justification may also contravene the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance. The prevalence of such acts points to the need for wider awareness of both employers and employees of SMEs on their rights and responsibilities under the law.”
From the employer survey, a high proportion of employer respondents felt that pregnant employees either had no impact (72%) or a positive impact (9%) on the organisation. However, 15% of respondents claimed that there is a negative impact, with the proportion higher among those engaged in the restaurants and hotels sector (32%) and community, social and personal services sector (29%).
The survey also suggests that supportive workplace measures for working mothers are still relatively uncommon in a number of areas. For example, although the majority of employer respondents (83%) allow lactation breaks in their organisation, only 17% of employers reported having implemented family-friendly measures in the workplace.
Prof. Chan reiterated, “Indeed, the survey on employers pointed to some concerning attitudes and lingering negative stereotypes about pregnant employees and working mothers. For instance, over 40% of employer respondents said that they think women are normally less concentrated and less committed at work after having babies, and that they will not consider a self-declared pregnant applicant when hiring new staff. This type of negative perception has no place in the 21st century workplace, and poses real barriers to women’s ability to equally access employment opportunities, including in advancing their career and breaking the glass ceiling in senior leadership.”
“With our rapidly ageing society and dwindling workforce, Hong Kong cannot afford to hold on to such views against our female employees, who form nearly half of our labour pool and whose potential must be nurtured if our city is to enjoy continued growth and development. The Government and other key stakeholders, including employers, must work together to come up with a multi-faceted approach to tackle this situation, including through more supportive policies and measures as well as wider public education,” added Prof. Chan.
Based on the study’s findings, the EOC has made a number of recommendations for action by the Government and other key stakeholders. These include enhancing education for both employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities relating to sick leave and pregnancy; gearing public education efforts towards certain industries or sectors where there were reportedly higher incidences of discrimination; and consideration of setting up a fund to subsidise SME employers to hire part-time and casual workers to cover staff on maternity leave, so as to ease the additional financial burden on SMEs and change potentially negative perceptions of pregnant employees and working mothers.
“In connection with this issue, as part of our review of the existing anti-discrimination Ordinances, the EOC had recommended that the Government should introduce a statutory right for women to return to their previous work position after maternity leave, as well as to have express reference to protection from discrimination during maternity leave. We believe these are crucial steps to guard against the existing discrimination and change the negative perception faced by pregnant women and working mothers. The EOC urges the Government to promptly enact these amendments,” noted Prof. Chan.
Meanwhile, the EOC will also consider more general public education and promotion measures, including training for both employers and employees, so as to widen awareness about pregnancy discrimination and eliminate such acts from the Hong Kong workplace.
For media enquiries, please contact Mr. Sam HO (Tel: 2106-2187).
Equal Opportunities Commission
4 May 2016