12 Sep 2014
Catriona Milne, Solicitor, looks at a recent European Court of Justice decision affecting the rights of female workers in the context of pregnancy.
Can other EU nationals claim UK benefits if they give up work due to the late stages of pregnancy and childbirth? Yes, according to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
In Jessy Saint Prix v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a French national had worked in the UK as a teaching assistant from September 2006 until August 2007 and then in nursery schools from 2008. By March 2008, she was nearly six months’ pregnant and had to leave work due to the physical demands of caring for young children.
At this point Miss Saint Prix made a claim for income support which was refused by the UK authorities on the grounds that she had lost her status as a worker. As a result of lack of income, Miss Saint Prix had to resume work three months after the birth of her child.
Miss Saint Prix’s appeal against the decision of the UK authorities took her to the EU’s highest court, the ECJ.
In the UK a ‘person from abroad’ is not entitled to income support unless he or she is a ‘worker’ (for the purposes of the EU Directive relating to freedom of movement and residence of EU citizens and their family members).
The question faced by the ECJ was: does the right of residence conferred upon a ‘worker’ extend to women who must give up working, or seeking work, because of the physical constraints of the late stages of pregnancy and its aftermath?
The court considered that an EU citizen, who is working nevertheless, retains the status of a worker where he or she is temporarily unable to work due to illness or accident. Pregnancy, however, is not an illness and so women who are pregnant cannot be regarded as persons temporarily unable to work as the result of an illness.
The ECJ instead looked to previous case law. It has been established that being classified as a worker does not necessarily depend on the continuing existence of an employment relationship. Miss Saint Prix was employed in the UK less than three months before the birth of her child, and returned to work three months after the birth of her child; all the time remaining in the UK.
The court reasoned that her status as a ‘worker’ should not be affected by having to give up work due to her pregnancy.
The fact that a pregnant woman is unable to work for a few months does not mean that she should be treated as permanently unavailable for employment during that period, provided she returns to work within a reasonable period of time.
The ECJ concluded that the physical constraints of the late stages of pregnancy and the immediate aftermath of childbirth forcing a woman to give up work temporarily does not deprive that woman of her status as a worker.
The effect of an ECJ decision is that an EU country, in this case the UK, is given guidance on how to interpret and apply its legislation. The decision in Jessy Saint Prix v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tells us that EU nationals who give up work due to the late stages of pregnancy are entitled to UK benefits and that national law throughout the EU must be interpreted to allow this.
The ruling is particularly important considering how many people in the UK now live and work abroad in other EU countries (and vice versa). The significance of the decision is that women working in other EU member states who must give up work due to pregnancy will not be left to suffer financial hardship as a result of being deprived the benefits of other ‘workers’.