Mail service under investigation over treatment of pregnant employees

Two women suffered miscarriages after reportedly being given tasks involving heavy lifting

Violeta (r) and Sara have filed complaints about their working conditions at Correos when they were pregnant.
Violeta (r) and Sara have filed complaints about their working conditions at Correos when they were pregnant.santi burgos

A Madrid provincial court is looking into whether two women who work for Correos, the Spanish state-owned mail service, suffered miscarriages as a result of being subjected to onerous working conditions.

Labor union CGT has filed a complaint on the two women’s behalf with the Public Prosecutor’s Industrial Accident department stating that they had repeatedly requested to temporarily be given duties that did not involve lifting heavy objects or delivering mail during their pregnancy, but that the company refused. The court, based in the Madrid dormitory town of Parla, has called the two women to testify, and has begun proceedings on the basis that Correos breached work safety legislation.

The two women, who have not been named, worked in the Parla sorting office, in the south of the Madrid region. One suffered a miscarriage in November 2011, and the second, one year later. The first was employed on a casual basis, and terminated in the first weeks of her pregnancy. She had already shown her supervisor a medical report saying that she was at risk, having previously suffered a miscarriage. The second woman was a full-time employee in the final stages of her pregnancy who also had a medical report stating that she should be assigned light tasks only.

“These two women were sent out to deliver mail after their supervisor threatened them with disciplinary action,” says the lawsuit.

One of the women had a medical report stating that she should be assigned light tasks only

Public prosecutors are focusing their investigation on a supposed breach of articles 316 and 317 of the Penal Code, which imposes prison sentences of between six months and three years for infractions of health and safety legislation that endangers the life or health of workers. The suit names 10 Correos senior managers, among them its heads of human resources and medical services, along with seven office supervisors.

According to the women, they were given delivery routes and amounts of mail to deliver that did not take into account the associated risks to their pregnancy.

Public prosecutors say that the company “ordered” one of the women to deliver registered mail, “which involved serious risk, given that she had to walk further than any other employee at her sorting office, delivering mail not just in her designated zone, but in several others. The other woman, as well as having to deliver mail, was also required to sort letters, “which involved moving heavy bags and crates around.”

At least four other complaints have been brought against Correos in recent years by pregnant women who say that their supervisors refused to assign them lighter tasks.

The women say they were given delivery routes that did not take into account the risks to their pregnancy

The CGT labor union says that the root of the problem is a series of procedures approved at the end of 2011, supposedly to protect pregnant employees. In practice, say the labor union and the women who have brought the charges against Correos, the new rules have had the opposite intended effect: previously, women could ask to be assigned light duties at any point in their pregnancy; but the new rules do not allow for this until after 18 weeks of their term. From that point, pregnant women are excused certain tasks; but the reality is that this is not compatible with the day-to-day running of a sorting office, says CGT.

Correos says it is aware of the lawsuit, but insists that its procedures offer more protection to pregnant women than the guidelines established by the Spanish Gynecological Society.

A Correos employee who gave birth last month and who prefers to remain anonymous, describes the company’s procedures as “impracticable”. “They tell you must not spend more than an hour on your feet, but when you are out delivering, where are you supposed to sit down: on a park bench? And what if it is raining? From the 22nd week you are told that you shouldn’t move anything weighing more than eight kilograms, but pushing open the door to an apartment block requires more effort than lifting that amount. And then there are the stairs,” she says, adding that her supervisor applied the rules by not allowing her to use a scooter, but then required her to deliver her mail on foot. “My pregnancy was absolutely fine: no vomiting or nausea in the first months, but that isn’t the story for all women,” she says.

She says that as her term advanced, she began to feel pain in her back after a few hours at work. “I asked my supervisor to assign me to another task, and he refused. He said that if I couldn’t work, then I should take sick leave. I told him that there were plenty of other tasks I could do, and that it made no sense to take sick leave.” She says that after seven months she gave in and took sick leave.

Another woman in the same situation, who is 19 weeks pregnant and works in a rural sorting office, describes a similar situation. “I’m exhausted. It’s very hot. I deliver mail between 9.30am and 2.15pm, and my feet swell up,” she says. Her delivery route includes 32 three-story buildings with no lift, and another part of it involves bending down to get mail through letterboxes. “I can manage for the moment, but not for much longer,” she says.

She has been told that in September she will have to cover another route that involves driving a van to another village to collect mail from the sorting office there. Her union has flagged up her case, but she says that if she is not able to cover the route she will likely be put on sick leave.

Correos’ procedures say that the requirements of pregnant women should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But Correos employee Sara Fomento says that she had to bring work inspectors in before her office would assign her lighter duties. Fomento is the daughter of the secretary general of CGT’s Correos division, and says that this influenced her sorting office manager’s decision to offer her office duties. “There were two other pregnant women in my office at the same time and we were all very well treated, but I know that it isn’t always like that. There are women throughout Spain who don’t know who to got to for help,” she says.

Violeta Figueruelo, another CGT member, says that she called in work inspectors in 2012 during her pregnancy after her supervisor told her that the rules prevented her from using a scooter to make her delivery round, and that she would have to cover the route on foot. Eventually she was given a transfer to carry out labor union work. “But the others don’t have that option, they are completely dependent on whether their supervisor is more or less sensitive to their situation,” she says.

Correos’ procedures

In 2011, Correos set new rules about “procedures for employees who are pregnant, breast feeding, or who have recently given birth.” The main points are as follows:

- No lifting objects weighing more than 10 kilograms from the 18th week of pregnancy.

- No moving more than eight kilos or managing more than 10 from the 22nd week.

- No going up or down stairs “repeatedly” more than four times a shift from the 26th week.

- No standing up for more than 30 minutes at a time from week 30.