Last week, we saw Australian politician, Senator Larissa Waters, breast feed in Parliament. This opens quite an interesting debate as to female employees’ rights regarding breast feeding in the work place.
While it is rare for female employees to bring their children into work to breast feed, it is more common for women who work near home or nursery to breast feed their child during a break. Nevertheless, some women were told by their employers that they could not feed their children on work premises, and that breaks were set aside for expressing, and expressing only.
Bringing your baby to work may still not be common, but many new mothers do need to be able to express and store their breast milk in the office.
Employers in the UK are not explicitly obliged by law to accommodate women who are breast feeding, unlike – for example – the United States.
There, businesses must give women reasonable time off to express milk, as well as providing facilities. Currently, the only requirement for employers in the UK is to conduct a risk assessment if a mother gives them written notification that she is breast feeding.
If the risk assessment reveals a risk, the employer must do all that is reasonable to remove it or prevent exposure to it. This may include temporarily altering working conditions or hours of work such as, allowing extra breaks. If that is not possible, the employer should offer suitable alternative work on terms and conditions that are not substantially less favourable than the original role. If there is no suitable alternative work, the employer must consider suspension on full pay for as long as necessary to avoid the risk.
If the employer fails to consider the risks, or treats a female employee less favourably because she is breast feeding, they may face a sex discrimination claim or a health and safety complaint being made against them.
Ahead of the UK general election, the charity, Maternity Action, has released a manifesto asking for the next government to introduce a full legal right to breast feed in the workplace, and where possible, employers should have a policy to support breast feeding. While it is still unclear how this will impact upon female workers, and indeed their employers, it’s certainly an interesting debate.
By Victoria Fagan, graduate paralegal in the employment team