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Pregnant and precarious: new and expectant mums’ experiences of work during Covid-19

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Research and reports
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Pregnant and precarious? New and expectant mums’ experiences on zero-hours contracts

Pregnant women in low-paid, insecure forms of work such as zero-hour contracts are at the sharp end of the UK labour market. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the evidence 21 suggested new and expectant mums employed on agency or zero-hours contracts, particularly those in the health and social care sector, were more likely to:

  • report a risk or impact to their health and welfare than other types of worker
  • be more likely to leave their employer because of health and safety risks not being resolved
  • be less likely to feel confident about challenging discriminatory behaviour.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, pregnant women on zero-hours contracts have faced some of the biggest economic and health risks because of the nature of their work, the sectors they work in and the lack of equal treatment for workers on these contracts.

Workers on zero-hours contracts miss out on many of the basic rights and protections that securely employed workers get such as the right to sick pay, time off for emergencies and protection from unfair dismissal. 22"Protections that are vital during a crisis like this.

  • 34 per cent of workers on zero-hour contracts (who are more likely to be women) do not qualify for statutory sick pay compared to six per cent of permanent employees. 23
  • 70 per cent of those too low paid to qualify for statutory sick pay are women. 24

This has left expectant mums on low-paid, zero-hours contracts with little choice between protecting their health, and that of their unborn baby, and the necessity to work.

Female-dominated sectors with the highest amounts of insecure working such as zero-hours contracts include health and social care and retail. 25 Women make up 83 per cent of those working in social care and 50 per cent of domiciliary care workers are on zero-hours or agency contracts. 26 A lack of adequate PPE and the difficulties with observing social distancing measures when caring has meant women working in the social care sector have faced some of the highest risk of exposure to Covid-19. Covid-19 related deaths of social care workers have been twice that of any other occupation. 27

As set out previously, pregnant women have a right to suspension from work if health and safety risks cannot be reduced or removed. However, this right is meaningless for zero-hours workers as their entitlement to pay is dependent on what is set out in their contract of employment. For women on zero-hours contracts, this means zero pay because zero-hours contracts offer no fixed hours of work.

This gaping hole in employment protection has created an impossible choice for pregnant women: continue to work with the health risks to themselves and their unborn baby, or stop work and lose all of their income. For many low-paid women, going without income is simply not an option.

Pregnant women on zero-hours contracts miss out on other rights and protections because access to full pregnancy and maternity-related rights depends on a woman’s employment status and length of service. 28 Women on zero-hours contracts and agency work are not equally entitled to:

  • paid time off for antenatal appointments 29
  • maternity or shared parental leave
  • the right to request flexible working
  • protection against unfair dismissal.

The lack of fixed hours of work also enables and masks discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and new mums. For instance, after telling their employer about a pregnancy, pregnant women on zero-hours contracts and agency contracts told us they have simply been let go or denied further work.

  • 21. HM Government and EHRC (2016) Pregnancy and Maternity-Related Discrimination and Disadvantage: experiences of mothers
  • 22". TUC (2019) Insecure Work 
  • 23. TUC (2020) Sick pay for all
  • 24. TUC (2020) Sick pay for all
  • 25. Living Wage Foundation; NEF (2019) Living Hours: providing security of hours alongside a Living Wage
  • 26. REF PENDING K Mackridge
  • 27. HM Government (2020) Coronavirus related deaths by occupation England and Wales
  • 28. (2020) Employment status
  • 29. Under the Agency Workers Regulations 2010, which implemented Council Directive (EC) 2008/104 on Temporary Agency Work. One exception is that agency workers who have been in continuous employment for 12 weeks are entitled to paid time off for antenatal appointments.

I was dismissed the next day I informed HR of my pregnancy.

During the pandemic, my employer told me that if I do not return to work whilst the primary school was open to only key workers children, then she would stop paying me that day.

We are concerned that the issues pregnant mums on zero-hours contracts are experiencing are exacerbated by other inequalities that impact women’s health and livelihoods. The disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on BME workers is deeply rooted in the structural inequalities and racism that impact what they earn, where they work and what happens when they catch the virus.

Women and BME workers are overrepresented in insecure forms of work and are more likely to work in sectors with higher exposure to Covid-19.

  • 54 per cent of those on zero-hours contracts are women. 30
  • BME workers are twice as likely as white workers to work in insecure forms of work. 31

This has had a devastating impact on some pregnant BME women’s health. While the UK’s BME population is around 13 per cent, BME women make up 55 per cent of those hospitalised while pregnant with coronavirus. 32


The government must take decisive action to ensure the recession does not create further inequalities for women, particularly BME women. A ban on zero-hours contracts would prevent this, creating job security and financial stability for women and stopping the employment rights abuses we are currently seeing. The government should review the pregnancy- and maternity-related rights available to workers and legislate to give greater parity between workers and employees in this regard. It should do this within the next six months.

We welcome the recent announcement that the EHRC will investigate the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BME workers. 33 Pregnant BME women face multiple and intersecting discrimination and inequality in the workplace and urgent action is required to specifically address the underlying causes and to tackle sexism, racism and pregnancy discrimination.

We would also like to see the Government Equalities Office take an immediate review of the Gender Equality Roadmap and redraft where necessary to reflect the current context, include a clear timetable for delivery, and take particular account of the specific needs of pregnant women in insecure work and those with multiple, intersecting protected characteristics such as BME women.

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