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Sun, Nov 15, 2009
The Straits Times
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Pregnant? Stand up for your rights at work
by Radha Basu

BUSINESS development executive Jennyfer Aw, 27, was four months pregnant when she shared the news with her bosses at the small IT firm at which she worked.

It was a Friday evening. At the end of the work day on Monday, the chief executive told her that she was being 'let go'.

She had been confirmed just a month earlier, she told me last week, when I was interviewing women who said they had been fired by their companies for being pregnant, or were underpaid maternity benefits.

Despite a contract stipulating that she be given two months' notice or pay in lieu, she was given only a month's salary. Her bosses claimed that she was too 'expensive'. But rather than complain to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ms Aw decided to 'forgive, forget - and move on'.

MOM received 119 pregnancy-related complaints in the first nine months of this year, the highest since records began in 2004, The Sunday Times reported last weekend. The spike was largely the result of a substantial enhancement in maternity benefits last year which coincided with Singapore's deepest recession in years. In three-quarters of the cases, the complaints were against small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

But these numbers may be the tip of the iceberg. While researching the story on dismissals of pregnant women, I spoke to 10 women who said they had been dismissed or unfairly denied their full maternity benefits over the past year. Most said they had documents to substantiate their claims. But only two lodged complaints with MOM.

The stress would not be worth it, even if they were vindicated, they said. Instead, some chose to air their grievances in an online forum for young mothers, where they found sympathisers - and fellow victims. Others said they had not complained as they eventually found other jobs.

Then there were those like Ms Marie Koh, who was not paid a single cent in maternity benefits by the recruitment firm for which she worked, but who chose not to complain in the hope that the company would pay her later.

The 29-year-old personal assistant said her boss had changed her job scope - and his attitude - the moment he learnt she was pregnant, hurling insults where he once heaped praise.

Others threw in the towel by handing in resignation letters because they could not handle the stress of bickering with their bosses. They had no grounds to complain, since they chose to resign and were not kicked out.

Some rued their loss of pay at a time when family expenses were set to soar, with a new mouth to feed. Yet they chose to give up without a fight for they believed that an official complaint - and a potentially messy investigation - could affect their future careers.

Their reluctance is not surprising, given that consensus rather than confrontation, courtesy rather than controversy are the creeds by which many Singaporeans live and work.

A minority may have been under-performers and had weak cases that would have crumbled once rigorously investigated.

But for those who had strong cases, this passive acquiescence to something that is wrong has me worried. As one woman - 33-year-old Joanne Ho, who complained to MOM and won compensation for being unfairly fired during her pregnancy - told The Sunday Times, the issue is not about money, but justice, equality and fair play.

There are other less altruistic reasons why pregnant women who feel they are being discriminated against should not simply resign or suffer in silence.

For one thing, the vicissitudes of life may lead them to regret the decision in the future. Take for instance, a 40-year-old former sales manager who became pregnant with her first child early last year. She was doing well, and brought in new clients for the small trading firm for which she worked.

But after she told her bosses she was pregnant, their attitude switched from 'amicable and interactive, to unreasonable and unfriendly', she said. This, coupled with the fact that her 'able assistant' was sacked to cut costs, 'forced' her to resign, she wrote to me in an e-mail message entitled 'How my baby cost me my job'.

In hindsight, her resignation was a bad decision, since her husband did not have a steady income. She had hoped that after her delivery, she would be able to find a job. But she could not. The recession hit suddenly and cash-strapped companies implemented hiring freezes. Today, she still does not have a full-time job and is trying to make ends meet as a property agent. She regrets throwing in the towel without a fight and hopes others don't do the same.

Ironically, Singapore acted to tighten laws to prevent discrimination against pregnant women just last year, in a bid to shore up its abysmal fertility rates.

MOM, too, has infrastructure in place to help complainants. Indeed, in some cases - like a woman who was fired on her first day back after maternity leave - complainants have won compensation, even when the companies ostensibly broke no laws.

Associations such as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices are also trying to educate firms that fair play leads to happier employees and - in the long run - better bottom lines.

But all this is of little use if women employees do not act to protect themselves from abuse.

They can plan ahead and not change jobs at a time when they're trying to become pregnant. In some of the cases I came across, many of the women who claimed unfair treatment were relatively new employees.

Work can be stressful, a pregnancy even more so. But an impulsive resignation can never help, especially if you need the job to feed an extra mouth.

All employees - and new ones in particular - must, where possible, keep proof of work well done. Such details can be a handy arsenal if companies choose to fire them and then blame it on under-performance.

But above all, employees who feel they have been given an unfair deal must be willing to make use of the laws that exist for them and seek redress.

Standing up to wrongs, despite inherent inconveniences, is a right that all civil societies must take seriously.

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This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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