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
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.”