This week has been declared World Breastfeeding Week (1-7 August 2011), which aims to remind employers that discrimination against breastfeeding women is now banned and unlawful.
Amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 took effect from 21 June 2011 and established breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination in certain areas of public life, including employment.
Key to the change is that it is now unlawful to directly or indirectly discriminate against a woman who is breastfeeding, which includes expressing milk.
Employers should ensure their employment practices and policies are aligned with the newly amended legislation.
Stephanie Nicol, Workplace Relations Partner at Gadens Lawyers, said employers should find it clear how to identify direct discrimination, such as a decision not to hire a woman because she is breastfeeding.
However, she said indirect discrimination is a more problematic concept. “Some employers struggle when it comes to identifying indirect discrimination. For instance, a requirement that employees take a break at a particular time may have the indirect effect of disadvantaging women who need to take breaks at other times to express milk,” she said.
Breastfeeding is now a protected attribute and discrimination on the ground of breastfeeding at work is prohibited, in the same way as discrimination on the ground of sex or pregnancy is prohibited.
“It is imperative that employers are aware of their obligations to women who are breastfeeding and ensure that their organisations comply with the new provisions,” Nicol said.