Victoria’s Secret, known for being a supporter of cleavage, has been in the news recently for suggesting that a mother take her baby to breastfeed in an alley in response to the mother’s request to feed in the store. The mother, apparently unsure of the rules around breastfeeding in public, had requested to feed in a dressing room when she received the said untoward suggestion from an employee. In fairness to the curvy company and the Lone Star State, it is both company policy and Texas state law to allow breastfeeding in public.
This issue has become relevant to me as a new father and as a husband to a wife who has chosen to breastfeed exclusively. I fear for any employee who would dare to tell my wife not to breastfeed publicly. So, what are the rules on breastfeeding in public in British Columbia?
The unequivocal answer is that discrimination on the basis of breastfeeding is a form of sex discrimination and therefore prohibited by the B.C. Human Rights Code.
The watershed case is Poirier v. The Deputy Chief Commissioner of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission (1997 BCHRT). This case involved a mother who was breastfeeding on her lunch hour at work. After attending a lunchtime seminar and breastfeeding her baby, the government department received a number of complaints, resulting in Ms. Poirier’s employer asking her to refrain from breastfeeding for two weeks and thereby creating an environment for her where she no longer felt comfortable breastfeeding at work. This was the first known case in Canada to deal with the issue of breastfeeding and discrimination.
This case has set a precedent across Canada that it is legally unacceptable to discriminate against a woman who is breastfeeding.
While many cases of discrimination go unreported because the affected party fails to report the matter whatsoever or the parties settle the matter without the necessity of a hearing, there has been another relatively recent case relating to a popular retailer and breastfeeding in B.C.
Victoria’s Secret could take a page out of H&M’s book. In the case of Valle v. H&M (2008 BCHRT 456), a mother was allegedly told not to breastfeed on the store floor. The case was dismissed at an early stage, not because there was not discrimination, but because H&M had sufficiently dealt with the matter. It was found that H&M had previously adopted a positive policy of breastfeeding in public; it republished that policy to all of its employees; it posted the policy at its stores; and, it apologized to the affected mother and any others who were affected. The bottom line is that H&M took a number of steps quickly to accept responsibility and distance itself from the alleged behaviour of the employee. However, not all situations will receive such an immediate response. If a woman is the subject of discrimination in relation to breastfeeding, she has six months from the date in question to file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
With respect to Victoria’s Secret, it looks like the secret’s out.