'Missis, how you one can breed so?'

All Woman

UNDER Jamaica's Maternity Leave Act, pregnant women are entitled to leave from work with pay and protection from dismissal. A woman to whom maternity leave is granted is also entitled to return to work in the capacity and place in which she was employed under her original contract of employment, and without the loss of any benefit or seniority.

But while reports of employers being brought to book for refusing such entitlements have been lower, as women become more aware of their rights, others are noting a more subtle form of pregnancy discrimination — subtle or overt signs that their bosses were displeased with their decision to have children, which impacted their plans for their families.

“My husband and I are employed to the same group of companies, he in a higher position than I am,” Rosette L, 35, shared with All Woman.

“He told me of a discussion the managers had in a meeting one day. They were laughing, but one said that the company should stop hiring women because 'as soon as dem come, dem breed'. He expressed to me then that we should try to build ourselves up in the company first before thinking about children, as management wasn't too keen on families.”

Despite their plans, however, six years into her employment Rosette, an accounting clerk, became pregnant.

“And that's when I truly experienced the venom. Everybody, from HR down, only grudgingly granted me the provisions I was due. My boss asked who was going to do my job while I was gone and why I put him in that position.

“Then he suggested that I take as little time off as possible, because, and I quote, 'All babies do is eat, sleep and s--- in the first few months, anyway, so it's not like any bonding would be taking place.' ”

Rosette reports that she took the paid eight weeks and returned to work right after. Plans to have more children have been sidelined for now, as the couple tries to get to a stage in their employment where they will feel more secure financially and can consider leaving.

Under the law, every female employee over 18 is entitled to maternity leave after 52 weeks of continuous employment. This provision applies to all workers who have entered into, or work under a contract with an employer.

To be entitled to maternity leave the employee should inform the employer that she will be, or wishes to be, absent from work wholly or partly because of her pregnancy or confinement, and that she intends to return to work with the employer.

It is this clause that 27-year-old hotel housekeeper Suzette P said led to her being dismissed from her job when she was pregnant, and she said she was so frustrated that she didn't bother to fight it.

“Apparently their rules say they are supposed to be told by 20 weeks of the pregnancy. I advised them orally at 30 weeks, as my headspace just wasn't there before, and that's when all hell broke loose,” she said.

“They advised me that as far as they were concerned I intended to abandon the job, and they couldn't find a replacement for me with such short notice, so it was best I leave. I just went home, had my baby, and reapplied somewhere else after. But that experience taught me to never get pregnant again!”

After three late-term miscarriages, carrying a successful pregnancy the fourth time filled librarian Kelly-Ann S with immense joy.

But that joy soon turned to bemusement when her HR Department informed her that she wouldn't be paid for any more leave, and if she went ahead and took leave she wouldn't be assured of a job when she returned.

“The first words my supervisor uttered was, 'Missis, how you one can breed so?' ” Kelly-Ann, 30, said.

“She apologised right after, but I could see that that was the general consensus of the entire organisation. I went on to have a healthy baby, but wasn't paid for any leave, and was lucky that they took me back after. And, trust me, everyday they remind me of how lucky I am.”

Human resource practitioner Giselle Johnson explained that in Kelly-Ann's case, though it may seem harsh, an employer is only obligated to pay for leave for three pregnancies.

“So if paid time is taken off for a miscarriage or stillbirth, that's still considered maternity leave,” she explained.

Johnson said that all employers are aware of the law which states that anyone who contravenes the right of the employee to enjoy paid maternity leave shall be guilty of an offence and can be brought before the courts, but she also understands that granting leave can be a strain on a company's resources.

“We understand that a woman has protection from discriminatory dismissal, but you also have to understand that, especially for smaller companies, this is a great loss. I strongly believe that women should plan their pregnancies with their employers' financial situation taken into account, too, and not just 'have out their lots' because they're employed full time and have this benefit.”

More women speak

All Woman asked women who have had children while working if there were any subtle or overt signs of displeasure with their decision, and whether this affected the decisions they made about their fertility.

Keneisha, customer support agent:

I have three small children, but I learned to just not bring them up in job interviews at all, or when at work, because people really use it to judge you, especially when you are young. I was turned down for two jobs at call centres and I am sure it's because I mentioned my children. They ask and pretend to be really interested, but really use it to determine whether they will hire you. They probably think you are going to miss work too often when you have children. For my current job, I was successful with the same qualifications and personality that I went to the others with. I just didn't mention the babies.

Shereice, stay-at-home mom:

I was a sales agent at a call centre in Portmore for about six months, and I was doing well. I realised that I was pregnant and I managed to get through the morning sickness OK, but by the time people on the floor started noticing I could feel their attitudes starting to change. The managers started to complain about everything, from my tone on the phone to my stats, which were not worse than any of my team members. One person even said that my pregnancy was making me forget how to do my job. I wanted to keep working to save the money, but I had to quit at seven months because they were fighting me out. That was their plan all along, because I hear they don't like to give maternity leave.

Danielle, customer service rep:

In the interview they asked who would take care of my daughter when I had to work late, and when I said her father the comment was that Jamaican men are not family-focused. I could see the reservation on the face of the male interviewer, but the woman said she was giving me a chance. I've never had an off-day because of my child, but every time something like a promotion comes up, my boss decides that I can't manage it because I have a child.

Leisa, prep school teacher:

I was putting on some weight, and when the principal saw me her words were, “Ah hope is not pregnant yuh pregnant 'cause I can't take on that stress right now.” I wasn't pregnant, but just the thought of getting pregnant and putting her through the inconvenience of having to find a new teacher scares me.

Eloise, pharmacist:

My boss acted like he was joking when he said he didn't like to hire young women because they cause 'pure' problems, but I knew he was serious. And the “problem” is that they can get pregnant. So the place is filled with men, and every week he has the birth control talk with the few women who are there. If I was to get pregnant I would just leave, rather than face his wrath.

Antoya, packer:

Funny enough, I work for one of those companies that's always in the media on days like International Women's Day pretending to care about women's rights. Big joke! I remember when I got pregnant with my now toddler my boss asked me what I was thinking. And he wouldn't cut down on the heavy-duty work, wouldn't approve extra bathroom breaks, and had me working the same long hours, even though I begged for the daytime shifts. One day he told me that if I wanted to be empowered and “tek man without using protection” I had to act like a man and suck up stress, despite my “medical condition”.

— Petulia Lawrence




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