Pregnant workers report growing discrimination

Women in the public sector say councils are firing them when they take maternity leave

Social worker Katinka Rørup said her world came crashing down when she received a pink slip from her job in the autumn of 2010.

The dismissal notice came a short time after she had informed her employers at an alcohol clinic in Zealand that she was pregnant.

"It was terrible to be fired halfway through my pregnancy,” Rørup told trade union magazine Ugebrevet A4. “My employer claimed that they needed to cut two employees and that it had nothing to do with my maternity leave.”

Rørup, however, said that she did not doubt for a moment that she was let go because she was pregnant.

“They thought it was a waste of money to pay for my maternity leave so they let me go,” she said.

According to Ugebrevet A4, the number of pregnant women and those on maternity leave being dumped by their public sector employers has spiked in recent years.

Several trade unions – including FOA, HK and the Danish Nurses Organisation – told A4 that the numbers are indeed rising, despite that fact that the firings violate the ligebehandlingslove (Equal Opportunity Law). The law forbids the firing of an employee that is pregnant or on parental leave. If an employee is dismissed, the employer must prove that the firing had nothing to do with either the pregnancy or leave.

The unions said that there has been a marked increase in the number women who feel that they were fired in connection with childbirth or pregnancy. FOA alone said that it is currently handling the cases of 30 women who felt they were wrongly dismissed.

Karen Sjørup, a researcher on labour and gender equality at Roskilde University, said shrinking budgets are behind the firings.

“The councils have forgotten that as a public authority, they have an even greater responsibility to comply with the law,” Sjørup told A4. “This is a bomb under our entire system of motherhood and the right to return to work following a pregnancy.”

HK chairperson Bodil Otto expressed outraged that councils are handing out pink slips to expectant mothers.

She said that HK has heard of several cases of women being let go who had not yet even become pregnant but were undergoing fertility treatments.

Michael Ziegler (Konservative), Høje Taastrup’s mayor and the chairperson for the municipal employees' union Kommunernes Landsforenings, said that he has not heard of any cases in this area and criticised the unions for talking behind his back.

”We haven’t heard of any cases where pregnant women are being fired,” Ziegler told Ugebrevet A4. “If there was a problem that needed to be resolved, we would have certainly heard from the unions, and they have not contacted us.”

Ziegler said that pregnant women could simply be being caught up in the steep rise in the numbers of council jobs being cut overall.

“Obviously, when councils are cutting large numbers of jobs, some that are pregnant or on paternity leave may lose their jobs as well,” said Ziegler. “Those cuts do not violate equal opportunity laws.”

Otto said that Ziegler’s explanation does not tell the whole story and that councils have become too quick to let people go.

“Councils are becoming more combative as employers and our members can feel it," Otto said. “We can also be combative. We had hoped to be able to resolve things amicably, but that seems to be becoming less of a possibility.”