Un­justly Fired

You are a work­ing mum with a decade of ex­pe­ri­ence, an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion and are set to en­joy new chal­lenges. You’d think the news that a sec­ond baby is on the way would be no is­sue - and you’d be dead wrong

Women's Weekly (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - BY ELLEN WHYTE

What do you do if you were dis­missed from your job sim­ply be­cause you were preg­nant?

When Tan May Lee landed a job as Head of Group Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Brand­ing in a lo­cal com­pany, she was de­lighted. She signed her new con­tract and then set about no­ti­fy­ing her old com­pany and work­ing out her no­tice. How­ever, a month later, May Lee got a big sur­prise: she dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant.

“I called the new com­pany’s HR depart­ment to tell them the news,” she re­calls. “I was open about it be­cause I did not want to turn up at work and just spring it on them.”

At 36, May Lee had over a decade of work ex­pe­ri­ence and an un­blem­ished per­for­mance record – in­clud­ing the time when she had her first baby.

How­ever, when she even­tu­ally met with the manag­ing direc­tor and his deputy, the two most se­nior peo­ple in the new firm, it be­came clear that there would be trou­ble.

“They ac­cused me of ly­ing in the in­ter­view ses­sions,” May Lee says bleakly. “I told them I had not. At the time, I did not know that I was preg­nant. I also ex­plained that it was my sec­ond preg­nancy, and that the first preg­nancy had not pre­vented me from ex­e­cut­ing my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at work and I had met all my tar­gets.” Un­for­tu­nately, the bosses ig­nored this.

“They were very dis­crim­i­na­tory,” May Lee re­calls. “They just went on about how they thought I would not be able to fo­cus on the job be­cause of the com­ing baby.”

“It was aw­ful. I came out of that meet­ing think­ing, I’ve al­ways done a good job, I am skilled at what I do, I have an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion and now that I am preg­nant, sud­denly all that does not mat­ter.”

Af­ter that meet­ing, May Lee re­ceived an SMS say­ing the com­pany they would not pro­ceed with the of­fer.

“That was clearly not right, and it was not an of­fer as we had al­ready signed a con­tract a month be­fore,” May Lee said. “I re­quested for a proper writ­ten let­ter say­ing that they had re­tracted the con­tract.”

The com­pany didn’t bother to re­spond.

At this point, May Lee had a signed con­tract of em­ploy­ment – and a text mes­sage say­ing that the job was off.

“It was to­tally sur­real,” she re­calls. “It made me feel as if preg­nancy was an of­fence or a crime.”

HELP­FUL TIP Un­cer­tain what her rights were, May Lee went to All Women’s Ac­tion So­ci­ety (AWAM) to ask for ad­vice. They sug­gested she should write a let­ter sum­maris­ing the meet­ings and send it to the com­pany via reg­is­tered post, just to get the facts down in black and white. As there was no re­sponse, May Lee went to work on the day agreed on in the con­tract.

“I never got past re­cep­tion,” she says. “I was es­corted out of the build­ing by two guards. They showed me a no­tice with my pic­ture along with my iden­tity card num­ber, say­ing I was barred from en­ter­ing their premises. It was very trau­ma­tis­ing.”

Over the protests of the guards, May Lee took the no­tice with her, and went straight to In­dus­trial Re­la­tions Of­fice.

“At that point I was feel­ing op­ti­mistic be­cause I had proof that the com­pany had clearly crossed the line,” May Lee re­calls.

What also gave her a boost was that when she put out the word about her sit­u­a­tion, an­other com­pany of­fered her a job.

“They didn’t care that I was four months preg­nant,” she smiles. “They ac­cepted me for my ca­pa­bil­i­ties and not for my bi­o­log­i­cal con­di­tion. I was happy there from the very start. Ev­ery em­ployer should look af­ter peo­ple like they do!”

While May Lee went on to build her ca­reer and have her sec­ond baby, the courts ex­am­ined her case. It took a month for the me­di­a­tion meet­ing to take place. With the In­dus­trial Re­la­tions Of­fi­cer as the in­ter­me­di­ary, May Lee was of­fered RM10,000 as com­pen­sa­tion by the com­pany.

“I wanted them to ad­mit to the truth that they vi­o­lated our agree­ment purely be­cause I was preg­nant,” May Lee says. “I re­jected the of­fer be­cause by ac­cept­ing that pay­ment, it would seem they were in the right and I was in the wrong.”

“I KNEW I WAS STRONG BUT UN­TIL THIS CASE, I DIDN’T RE­ALISE HOW STRONG I COULD BE­COME”

She de­cided to take it to court.

Af­ter that, the case was filed with the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and re­ferred to a hear­ing in the Labour Court.

“The Min­istry sub­se­quently sent me a note to say the case was struck off but they didn’t give a rea­son,” May Lee sighs. “It hit me that not only was I not pro­tected but that there must be a lot of peo­ple in my sit­u­a­tion too.”

As the let­ter did not ex­plain the process or rea­son­ing for the de­ci­sion, May Lee sought le­gal coun­sel.

“They thought it was be­cause the Labour Court can only do two things,” May Lee ex­plains. “They can re­in­state peo­ple in a job and they can make com­pa­nies pay back­dated wages. How­ever, as I had a con­tract but had not started work and had not been paid any wages, none of that ap­plied.”

Most peo­ple would shy away at this point, un­able to af­ford the fees in­volved in a trial and un­will­ing to take on the men­tal strain of fight­ing a big cor­po­ra­tion. Made of sterner stuff, May Lee even­tu­ally found a le­gal firm will­ing to take up her case part pro bono.

Putting in RM20,000 as her part of the costs, May Lee went to Civil Court with a case for wrong­ful dis­missal on the ba­sis on the preg­nancy.

At this point, the Shah Alam High Court had awarded an­other wo­man, Noor­fadilla Ah­mad Saikin, RM300,000 in dam­ages for breach of her con­sti­tu­tional rights to gen­der equal­ity af­ter the gov­ern­ment re­fused to em­ploy her as a tem­po­rary teacher when she be­came preg­nant. FACT “That made me feel op­ti­mistic,” May Lee says, “ex­cept that I dis­cov­ered that this pro­tec­tion that said or­gan­i­sa­tions could not ter­mi­nate

“I DID MY LEVEL BEST AND IT IS A BA­SIC RIGHT WORTH GO­ING TO BAT­TLE FOR. I STOOD UP FOR MY BABY TOO”

women for be­ing preg­nant did not ap­ply to the pri­vate sec­tor.”

It took a year for May Lee’s case to be heard. Also, at the same time, the com­pany filed a counter suit against her, claim­ing she had tres­passed by en­ter­ing their build­ing and that she had dam­aged their rep­u­ta­tion by fil­ing a suit against them.

“It was stress­ful,” she ad­mits. “Thank­fully, my baby was born healthy and my new job went well. I ex­e­cuted my role, went on ma­ter­nity leave and came back with no is­sue at all.”

Once the case was heard, it took an­other five months for it to be con­cluded.

“Go­ing to court was a big de­ci­sion for me,” May Lee ad­mits. “Apart from the money and the stress, I re­alised peo­ple are scared that they will be black­listed, sim­ply for stand­ing up for their rights.”

De­spite her e orts, she lost the case.

“I was dev­as­tated,” May Lee says. “Af­ter all that ef­fort, I was back at square one. I felt aban­doned. I lost be­cause there are no le­gal statutes that pro­tect preg­nant women against job dis­crim­i­na­tion in the pri­vate sec­tor.”

The only plus was that the com­pany had their counter suit struck off as well. While it cost her, May Lee does not re­gret it. “I did my level best and it is a ba­sic right worth go­ing to bat­tle for. I stood up for my baby too.”

May Lee de­cided against an ap­peal af­ter con­sult­ing sev­eral le­gal opin­ions; and be­cause the laws to pro­tect women sim­ply are not in place. In­stead, she has changed tac­tics: she is now work­ing to change the law.

“I knew I was strong but un­til this case, I didn’t re­alise how strong I could be­come,” May Lee says. “I feel there is a lot to be done to pro­tect women and so I met up with Su­mi­tra Vis­vanathan, the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of Women’s Aid Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WAO). We de­cided we wanted to do some­thing pos­i­tive and make ef­fec­tive change.”

IN­SIGHT Their first step was to kick off a sur­vey among Malaysian work­ing women to find out how wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion against preg­nancy is. Their re­sults show­ing 40 per cent had sim­i­lar is­sues proved it was a far more se­ri­ous prob­lem (see side­bar be­low).

“To­gether with the Joint Ac­tion Group (JAG), we are now work­ing to­wards a Gen­der Equal­ity Act that will pro­tect women against in­equal­ity – in and out­side the work­place,” May Lee says. “I was elected as an EXCO mem­ber last year, and now we are work­ing to­gether to cre­ate aware­ness. Our ad­vo­cacy ini­tia­tives have led to pub­lic dis­cus­sions as well as di­a­logues with var­i­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries.”

So what does she want from this?

“On one hand, we laud women for be­ing moth­ers, and yet in the work­place, be­ing preg­nant is treated as a crime. We need to make sure that cor­po­ra­tions fall in line with com­mu­nity stan­dards so that women need not be afraid to be­come mums. That can only be achieved when le­gal pro­tec­tion is in place.”

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