Supporting mothers’ breastfeeding rights in the workplace

IEU often receives inquiries from women members returning to work after parental leave about their rights to breastfeed at work.

Under NSW anti-discrimination law, as well as similar provisions in the ACT, it is generally against the law to be treated unfairly because of:

  • breastfeeding
  • expressing milk for later use, and
  • making arrangements to breastfeed or express.

A mother's right to breastfeed is also protected by the federal Sex Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, pregnancy and potential pregnancy.

The Act also makes clear that discrimination because a woman is breastfeeding (or expressing) is regarded as sex discrimination because it is clearly a characteristic of women.(The Australian Human Rights Commission, which administers the federal Sex Discrimination Act, has a range of resources on its website, including a ‘Breastfeeding and Work’ factsheet.)

These rights under anti-discrimination law mean having access to a safe, clean and private area to breastfeed or express and to negotiate suitable times for lactation breaks to occur.

While many employers are very supportive of women returning from parental leave who need to arrange to breastfeed or express, the Union is unfortunately aware of some situations which have caused distress to mothers.

In one instance, an assistant principal who had returned to work after three months of parental leave, was told that her request for lactation breaks (when her baby was brought to the school) was unreasonable and that as a school leader she should be able to manage her time better.

In an independent school, a returning staff member was advised that the only available space for her to express milk was in the cleaner's storage area.

Another member was informed that if she wanted to express during school hours, she needed to arrange to bring her own 'mini bar fridge' to the school.

Fortunately, such examples are not the usual experience for members and most employers are supportive of lactation requirements, including having policies in place and ensuring that appropriate spaces and refrigeration are provided if needed.

Members with issues in regard to their return to work after parental leave are most welcome to contact the IEU for advice and support.

Pam Smith IEU Assistant Secretary
Convenor IEU Women and Equity Committee