17 January 2013

Kenya: When Pregnancy Gets You Sacked

The joy of childbirth can be described by many women as phenomenal. Though the experience comes with numerous responsibilities, it fosters renewed strength of striving to be a good parent.

Many women continue to express their joy and excitement whenever they discover that someone is growing inside them.

However, pregnancy can sometimes become a curse, especially for those at risk of losing their jobs due to their condition.

"I was working as a secretary, the working conditions were good, but when they realised I was pregnant, something changed," said 27-year-old Beatrice Onyango, a former employee of a local company.

She had been working for the firm for two years, but was fired soon after she gave birth.

She went on maternity leave in October of 2011 and was told she would report back to work after her maternity leave, which was to end in January 2012. That was the end of her employment at the company.

It has emerged that a section of employers go against the law and use pregnancy to wrongfully terminate the employment of their female employees. A number of women have been discriminated against and sometimes axed after their employers discover that they are expectant.

"When I went home, they sent me a letter on October 31 saying my position had been declared redundant and I could not go back to work," said a depressed Onyango.

Being a single mother, Onyango had a rough time, trying to make ends meet for her and her newborn bundle of joy. She had to seek her family's help to meet her day-to-day requirements until she got a new job. "I am just lucky I have a good family," she says.

She decided to follow up the issue with the Ministry of Labour because she thought that her right as an employee had been violated. The ministry wrote to her employer ordering them to give her maternity leave pay, but they never responded.

Onyango then went to the Federation of Women Lawyers to seek legal redress.

Maureen Odhiambo, a 30-year-old mother of two, is another victim. She had been working for a real estate construction company as a clerk for about nine months until she was fired.

"When I joined the company, I was on six-month probation; my contract was renewed in March. I started having pregnancy complications and my gynaecologist forced me to go on a one month bed rest, which my employer approved," she recalls.

But soon after Odhiambo went on her bed rest, she started getting calls from the office about some problems being encountered at a site the company was working on. Soon after, she received a termination letter from the company's human resource manager.

"Our human resource manager called me and told me that our managing director had asked her to write me a termination letter. I asked her on what grounds, she told me point-blank that there was no reason why I was being fired, but because I was pregnant," said Odhiambo.

The company however denied these claims and cited poor performance as reason for her termination.

"I concluded that they fired me because of my pregnancy because there is no way they would renew my contract and then fire me a month later because I was performing poorly," said a distraught Odhiambo.

After she was fired, Odhiambo had a hard time getting another job. Even though she is married, her family expenditure had to be cut down considerably due to the loss of her job. Her family was compelled to move to a cheaper house. She had to pull her other child from school for a while because they could no longer afford to pay the fees.

Just like Onyango, Odhiambo also sought help from the Ministry of Labour but got nothing. "I came to Fida and got a positive outcome and now, we are pursuing the case in court," Onyango said.

Onyango and Odhiambo are both seeking compensation for wrongful termination and discrimination due to pregnancy or maternity issues.

According to Christine Kungu, a legal officer at Fida, these two are just a few of the many cases they receive on such grounds. She says the cases they receive are now on an upward trend.

"We receive up to 15 cases of women being terminated or discriminated against due to pregnancy or maternity issues at any given time. Expectant women are facing a lot of challenges especially at the work place," Kungu said.

Kungu says most companies being accused by female employees are big corporates. She says most of them outright deny that the women are being fired because they are pregnant and argue that their work is not impressive.

She says that a reason for the firing could be ignorance and the fact that many employers find it hard to pay someone who has gone for three months on maternity.

"They feel when the female employees are expectant or when they go on maternity leave, they have to replace them with other people and still pay them when they are absent from work," said Kungu.

Fida has filed several cases, suing companies for wrongful termination of female employees. Last year, it took three companies to court for wrongful termination of expectant women. In the case, Fida also filed a law suit against the Attorney General and the Labour ministry for doing nothing to help the women.

"The constitution strictly prohibits employers against directly or indirectly discriminating employees because they are pregnant. This lawsuit is a step towards the right direction," said Kungu. "We also have the Employment Act in place which also stipulates clearly that no employer should directly or indirectly discriminate against any female employee on issues of maternity. These laws are being ignored by such employers."

Many women are afraid to reveal that they are expectant whenever they get a new job because they fear that their contracts will be terminated before they are hired. Sacking women or refusing to hire them on such grounds is a gross violation of their reproductive health rights.

"I had heard about women being fired because they are pregnant, so this is like a call to many other women, because if you are working for someone and doing well, why should they fire you just because you are pregnant?" Odhiambo wonders.

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