01:10, August 18 240 0 theguardian.com

2019-08-18 01:10:05
‘I lost my baby then I lost my job’ – one mother’s fight to change working rights

Amy McKeown had been 12 weeks pregnant when she came round on her bathroom floor, blood pooling on the tiles, unable to move. Ten days earlier, in the spring of 2016, she had gone for her first scan with her husband, Matt, and their two-year-old daughter. At the appointment, a nurse told her she had miscarried; the baby had no heartbeat.

McKeown opted to let nature run its course and give birth, rather than have a procedure (dilation and curettage) or an induced labour. Her stillborn baby was born at home a few days later. McKeown ended up bedridden for six weeks, and haemorrhaged heavily for almost 10, causing frequent blackouts.

When she returned to work, she lost her job in a redundancy round as part of “a strategic business decision” by EY (Ernst & Young) as the firm exited an area of the business.

“I was worn down,” she says. “And if a family loses one of two incomes and weren’t planning for it, it’s quite a difficult thing.”

McKeown, traumatised yet emboldened by her experience, has since been fighting to change the law to ensure that women are given better employment protection, whether they get pregnant, miscarry or give birth. She has received support from her Labour MP in north London, Keir Starmer, who is helping her to set up meetings with Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities committee.

“We need a clear legal definition of what marks the end of pregnancy,” says McKeown. “At the moment you can be medically pregnant – which you are until you give birth – but legally not, because the legal definition is that you’re only pregnant if you have a developing foetus inside you. And that matters, because it can leave you in a situation where you’re not protected by employment law.”

In McKeown’s case, she was sick and haemorrhaging placenta for two and a half months. “Technically, I wasn’t pregnant, but was I still in labour? Who knows? When you have a baby, you’re protected by maternity law. But with thousands of women like me, that isn’t the case.”

Now she wants to ensure that employment law covers women in all situations and is working with the charity Maternity Action and campaigners Pregnant Then Screwed to make it happen. Last month, following a 10-week government consultation, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy confirmed some extended legal protections for pregnant women and new mothers. In a separate initiative, Miller introduced a bill in the House of Commons pushing for a much more radical overhaul of protections against pregnancy and maternity discrimination. “The consultation, in a nutshell, looks at extending the rights of pregnant workers and people returning from pregnancy, as to whether they can be protected from redundancy for six months afterwards,” says McKeown.

But Joeli Brearley, who founded Pregnant Then Screwed, believes the amendments don’t go far enough. In 2015, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report estimated that 54,000 women a year lose their jobs as a result of maternity discrimination.

“Amy’s case is more unusual because the miscarriage lasted so long,” says Brearley. “We more often get stories from women when employers find out they have had a miscarriage and a month later they have been made redundant. It’s a way of phasing them out of the workplace because they now want to have a baby.

“Women going through IVF, which is a brutal, painful process, encounter the same thing. The employer views them in an entirely different way: they get sidelined, clients get taken off them, they are told they are rubbish at the job, all because employers have unconscious bias against pregnant women who are seen as a burden.”

The statistics bear this out: in the same EHRC report, 32% of employers admitted they avoided hiring women of childbearing age.

It has pushed McKeown into action to raise awareness of what women really go through with a miscarriage. “When you think of miscarriage, you think it will be like a heavy period, blood and matter. But I went into labour, my cervix dilated and I had to give birth. We had a tiny baby – Matt caught it in his hands.” They buried the baby under a jasmine tree in their garden. McKeown had been pregnant at the same time as her sister and two sisters in law. “See? The stats show that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. No one talks about it,” she says. “In all my working career anywhere, I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve been off sick with a miscarriage. But there is a real sadness and grief.”

She went on to get pregnant again and had a healthy son. McKeown now has a five-year plan in which she is determined to get the Equality Act 2010 updated. “This will sound very naff, but I kind of feel like it was supposed to happen so I can do this. I would obviously prefer it hadn’t happened, but I can speak from experience and hopefully change things.”