Written by Coni Longden-Jefferson Published on 21st November 2019

As yet another week of Brexit talks engulfs the UK, there is once again an air of uncertainty hanging over Westminster. At the time of writing, the fate of Brexit now lies in the hands of a snap General Election, that will take place on the 12th December. Whichever party wins a majority in this election will be able to decide how, and if, we leave the EU. 

Amongst the mess of parliament and childish games of politicians, one thing that is for sure -  if Brexit goes ahead, the impact on women will be overwhelmingly negative. This pill is made even harder to swallow when you look at how many women actually voted for Brexit. 67 percent of millennial women and 55 per cent between the ages of 35 and 54 voted to stay in the EU, proving that Brexit is not so much ‘will of the people but, will of the men’ as Labour MP Tulip Siddiq declared in a recent article in The Independent. 

Pregnant Then Screwed founder Joeli Brearley is a passionate campaigner for the rights of working mothers, and over the past few years has been using her platform to shine a light on the negative impact Brexit may have on women, and mothers in particular. Recently, Joeli and her team collated far-reaching research on these issues, and the findings paint a rather bleak picture. 

"Brexit has the potential to make the lives of women and working parents even harder, many of the protections currently in place for pregnant women are the result of EU legislation, which the government will have the right to dismantle once we leave.’ says Joeli.“The challenges for working parents and mums, in particular, are huge as it is, without adding this level of political uncertainty to the mix."

Mothers to be 

The threat to maternity leave was one of the main reasons Joeli initially decided to collate this report. One of the most pertinent effects of a No Deal Brexit would be changes in legislation that we may currently take for granted - including maternity leave. Most of our maternity protection currently comes from the EU - before becoming a member in 1975, female UK workers could be dismissed based on pregnancy as it was seen as an equivalent to illness. The EU changed all that. “Maternity rights of temp workers are also protected by a piece of EU legislation called the Agency Worker Regulations.” adds Joeli. “We know this was unpopular when first introduced and it's highly likely that this, too, will be reneged on by the government”

Admittedly, there have been reassurances that our rules around maternity leave will not change, regardless of the withdrawal outcome. However, in these uncertain times, the vulnerability a No Deal Brexit exposes mothers-to-be to, is more than a little unnerving. 

The EU was also responsible for improving the rights of pregnant women within the workplace. The Pregnant Workers Directive is responsible for protecting pregnant and breastfeeding women’s health and safety within the workplace. Whilst it’s true that many breastfeeding mothers still struggle to access the support they need during working hours, a change in legislation could make these standards even harder to enforce.  

Working mothers 

The delicate balancing act that many women face when returning to work after having children is never an easy one. However, many of the laws that were put in place to help and protect them are intrinsically linked to our membership of the EU, meaning the work/life juggle of working mothers could be put under more strain following Brexit. “The EU protects part-time workers against less favourable treatment in comparison to full-time workers. Given that more women than men work part-time – often due to caring responsibilities – this is hugely concerning,” says Joeli.

Legislation surrounding emergency time off for dependents and the ability to ask for flexible working were brought in under UK law, and therefore should theoretically not be impacted by Brexit - in the short term at least. However, as workers rights are protected by the EU, this means that future governments would be able to scrap these initiatives if they so wish.

Should this situation arise it would be a devastating blow for movements such as Pregnant Then Screwed and Flex Appeal who have worked tirelessly to improve the rights of working parents in the UK. 

Workplace discrimination based on gender is also protected under the EU Charter. The government has voted to scrap this charter, therefore this right will become diluted if and when we leave the EU, leaving women even more at risk of unfair treatment by their employers. 

Mothers at home 

Whilst Brexit has divided experts, most of them can agree on one thing - and that’s that our economy will be weakened following our departure from the EU  - and decimated if we end up with a disastrous no deal. 

Now, we all remember the promises of that infamous bus. However, between funding cuts, staff shortages and an increase in cost for imported medicines, it seems that should the economy dip as much as experts predict, the NHS will be the first institution to suffer. The NHS is the backbone of the UK’s health system, and cuts will have a huge impact on the most vulnerable of the population, particularly children and the elderly. One children’s hospice in the North West has, reportedly, already had to close down due to the financial implications the uncertainty of Brexit has had on their funding. One of the most important drivers for any mother is to keep their children safe and healthy. Being able to access medical help when they need it is a basic right that could be under threat if NHS funding suffers due to Brexit. 

As well as the NHS, the childcare industry is also heavily reliant on EU migrants. Despite a guarantee that EU workers already living and working in the UK will maintain their rights to employment here, these workers are leaving Britain in droves. There has also been a sizable reduction in the number of applications coming from EU residents. It is plausible that the care sector will be crippled by Brexit and the burden of responsibility will undoubtedly fall on mothers, many of who will have to leave their jobs or reduce their working hours to take care of their children. This is an area Joeli feels particularly passionate about. “Our childcare system is under enormous pressure as it is. EU migrants account for 6% of childcare workers and are critical to an industry that is already vastly underfunded, not to mention that EU funding has kept many after-school clubs open or helped academics conduct much-needed research into the area of childcare.”

As well as a damaged economy, our cost of living will also dramatically increase, should we fail to reach a trade agreement, due to higher taxes on imported food. Research estimates that a No-Deal will cost households £1,000 per year, while the most optimistic scenario would lose families £245 each, meaning hard-working families will struggle to feed their children. The amount of people using food banks is already up 19% from last year, a number that is set to increase if the cost of living continues to rise post-Brexit. 

Hope and support for mothers 

Whilst this undoubtedly makes for tough reading, it only furthermore highlights the incredible work organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed are doing to offer people help and support in these uncertain times. PTS offers 121 mentor support for anyone going through a discrimination tribunal, and also has a flexible working helpline to help mums to build a flexible working case. ‘We won’t take any political reversal lying down. The government is already falling short of supporting mums in so many areas, to go backwards instead of forwards in any areas would be devastating.” says Joeli. “When the general election is here, we will be at the front to challenge the different political parties to prove their worth when it comes to improving the lives of working mums. Divorces are messy, but the fallout from Brexit shouldn’t be at the expense of mums yet again, and we will drive this message home.”