A Russian entrepreneur based in the UK with “strong views on the importance of breastfeeding” unfairly dismissed a lawyer after she took maternity leave, an employment tribunal has ruled.
Timur Artemev, who co-founded Russia’s biggest mobile phone retailer, said he had not consulted Anastasia Tuchkova earlier about redundancy because he wanted to “leave her undisturbed while she was breastfeeding”.
The tribunal heard that Ms Tuchkova, a Russian-qualified lawyer, started working on a consultancy basis for a UK company set up to look after Mr Artemev’s “business and domestic arrangements”.
She was offered a full-time position in January 2016, with a salary of £40,000, to carry out a variety of tasks, including liaising with Russian lawyers over Mr Artemev’s business interests there, administrative tasks relating to his UK business interests, and looking after his “legal and personal affairs” including those relating to his former spouses and children.
Ms Tuckhova went on maternity leave on 1 March 2017. Her original intention was to return to work six months later, but in August she emailed Mr Artemev’s company, Blackdown Hill Management, extending it until 1 March 2018.
Ms Tuchkova was invited to a meeting in February 2018 to discuss “organisational changes”, at which Mr Artemev told her there was “no work” any more and advised her to look for a new job.
Asked why he had not consulted with her earlier “if he had formed the view in late 2017 or early 2018 that the demand for the role was reducing”, Mr Artemev stated “that he believed very strongly that breastfeeding a child was very important”.
The tribunal recorded that the entrepreneur was “aware that the claimant was breastfeeding”.
“He felt that it was important that he should leave her undisturbed while she was breastfeeding as he was concerned that the shock of a prospective redundancy might affect her ability to feed her child and that the child was more important than the mother.”
Ms Tuchkova returned to work in March 2018 but could not access her email accounts or files as her laptop had been returned to factory settings and wiped clean.
At a meeting with Mr Artemev later that month, he suggested that she should carry on “working on a flexible basis” while looking for another job.
Asked several times what she wanted to do, Ms Tuchkova “became distressed and started to cry”.
She went off on sick with work-related stress and raised a grievance, arguing that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of maternity and in her selection for redundancy.
The grievance was not upheld on the grounds that there was a “genuine redundancy situation”. Her appeal was rejected and her employment was terminated in July 2018.
The tribunal concluded that, had she not taken maternity leave, it was “highly unlikely” that Ms Tuchkova would have been told there was no longer a job for her.
Her return to work was “very badly handled” and the suggestion she should find a new job “inappropriate”. However, by the time of dismissal, it was indeed because of redundancy, the tribunal found.
It upheld in full only one of Ms Tuchkova’s six claims, that she was unfairly dismissed because the process adopted had not been fair. There was no “proper basis” for concluding that her job had disappeared and her selection for redundancy “appears to have been pre-judged”.
It found that the respondents failed to carry out proper consultation over the proposed redundancy situation and did not carry out a fair selection process, while the lawyer’s grievance “was not addressed objectively or independently”.
It was possible, if unlikely, that Ms Tuchkova could have kept her job or been offered a permanent alternative role had there been a proper consultation.
The tribunal also upheld in part that there had been direct sex discrimination and unfavourable treatment relating to pregnancy and maternity by failing to provide a suitable and appropriate role on her return from maternity leave, failing to provide any meaningful work on her return or access to the company’s systems, failing to consider that the reason there was no work for her to do was because it had been distributed to others while she was away, and by the way the redundancy process was handled.
A remedy hearing has been scheduled for July.