By Brendan Barber
TUC General Secretary
Maternity rights are a key benefit for new mothers
Over the past decade - thanks in part to union campaigning - working parents have been given improved rights to paid and unpaid time off, so that they can spend more time with their children.
New flexible working rights have also helped parents better balance their work and family responsibilities.
Let us take the case of pregnant workers and the right to maternity and paternity leave.
All pregnant employees are entitled to reasonable paid time off for ante-natal care and are protected from suffering any discrimination, such as being dismissed or refused a promotion, because of their pregnancy.
All employed new mothers are entitled to 52 weeks' maternity leave.
If you have 26 weeks' service with your employer by the 15th week before the baby is due, then you are entitled to statutory maternity pay (SMP), which is set at 90% of your earnings for the first six weeks, and then at £123.06 for the remaining 33 weeks.
If you do not qualify for SMP, you may be entitled to Maternity Allowance, which is usually £123.06 for 39 weeks.
The main carer in a same-sex relationship has the exactly the same entitlement to maternity leave and pay, as does the main carer of an adopting couple.
You must give your employer 28 days' notice of the date you want your maternity leave to begin.
Fathers are entitled to two weeks' paid paternity leave, paid at £123.06 a week, if they have at least 26 weeks' service with their employer by the 15th week before the baby is due.
Expectant fathers should tell their employer about taking paternity leave by the 15th week before the baby is due.
Returning to work
It is helpful to tell your employer as soon as you can when you intend to return to work. If you are planning to return earlier than 52 weeks, you need to give a minimum of eight weeks' notice.
Brendan Barber is the general secretary of the TUC
The government have recently introduced "keeping in touch" (KiT) days. These allow you to work for up to 10 days during the maternity period without breaking the terms of your maternity leave and losing your right to maternity pay.
They are not obligatory, but many mothers and employers find they help with managing people's return to work.
There is no statutory entitlement to be paid for KiT days, so check with your employer to see if they will pay you or allow you to take paid time off at a later date before agreeing to work.
In addition to paid leave, parents are able to take up to 13 weeks' unpaid parental leave before their child's fifth birthday. If you are the parent of a disabled child, you are entitled to 18 weeks' leave before the child's 18th birthday.
European trade unions and employers have just reached an agreement which will extend unpaid parental leave to four months. The agreement is likely to be implemented into EU law in 2010 and will eventually become part of UK law.
The government has committed to extending paid maternity leave from 39 weeks to 52 weeks and to making the second six months of maternity leave transferable from mother to father. However, it is uncertain if this will be implemented before the next election.
As well as time off from work, millions of parents enjoy the right to request flexible working - such as changing shifts, varying start and finish times, working from home or shifting to part-time hours - in order to help balance their work and family life.
A newborn will bring new pressures to work/life balance
Since April this year, parents of children up to age 16 or parents of disabled children up to age 18 have had the right to request flexible working.
Your employer has to seriously consider your request for flexible working, although they can turn it down for business reasons - for example, if it would have a detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand.
When making a flexible working request, it is a good idea to consider what impact it might have upon the business and how any possible negative consequences could be avoided. If you are a union member, it is best to do this with the help of your union rep, who is likely to be well practised in dealing with flexible working requests.
Research suggests that the majority of flexible working requests are accepted by employers. This is because many employers realise the benefits of allowing flexible working, which include greater staff commitment, higher productivity, reduced turnover and less sickness absence.
If your employer refuses your request, you should still have the right to appeal against the decision, and if the proper procedure is not followed, then you may be able to pursue a grievance.
Your employer may offer better rights overall than the legal minimum. They could offer more generous maternity and paternity pay than the statutory rates. Many employers also offer flexible working arrangements to all staff, rather than just to those who have a legal right to request it.
You should check your contract or your staff handbook, as any additional entitlements are normally found there.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.