IN DECEMBER, Jane (not her real name) received a bombshell via e-mail: the five months pregnant cosmetics counter saleswoman was told she was out of a job.

She was working at an outlet of Kiehl's, an American skin-care brand, her friend told The Straits Times. Tired from standing for hours, she took a brief break and sat down in a corner.

At that moment a staff member took a snapshot to show her boss how goods were being displayed. Jane ended up in the picture, which the manager later saw. The next day, Jane was fired.

She is one of 84 pregnant women who filed wrongful dismissal complaints last year, a big drop from the 147 cases the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) received in 2009.

The MOM attributed the drop to the economic pick-up and better awareness all-round, a sentiment echoed by employment agencies. Both sides are now 'more aware of their obligations and rights under the law', an MOM spokesman said.

Jane took her case to the ministry, and its mediation led to Kiehl's giving her four months in pay. But she is still jobless and worried about how she will support her child, said the friend, who asked not to be named.

Kiehl's told The Straits Times it 'sincerely regrets that this situation occurred' and has been working to 'identify and better understand the cause of this abnormality'.

Most cases do not get this far. Mr Josh Goh, assistant director of corporate services at recruitment agency The GMP Group, said bosses and employees 'are more informed about maternity benefits and employers' obligations today, and disputes are usually settled internally first'.

But women's rights groups worry employers are using this increased awareness as another way to discriminate.

'We know of cases where women are asked during the job interview process about their marital status, relationship status and whether they plan to have children,' said a spokesman for the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). 'Employers could be discriminating against women even before they're hired.'

Many mothers are psychologically affected when they are fired, said Mrs Sher-li Torrey, founder of Mums@work Singapore, a social enterprise supporting mothers seeking flexible work options.

'Their self-esteem drops and they feel quite helpless, not knowing who to turn to,' she said. 'It might also affect decisions to have more kids.'

She added that, for such women, the loss of income, maternity leave and career can be an added burden. 'When you're pregnant, you undergo a lot of hormonal changes. Some mums feel like they are being punished for procreating.'

Industry players said the firms most likely to fire pregnant staff were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Almost nine in 10 of the complaints brought by the women last year involved SMEs, up from 75 per cent in 2009.

With more than 150,000 SMEs here, the figure is worrying. 'It may be possible that an SME may not have the luxury of a fully fledged human resource team,' said Mr Mark Sparrow, managing director of recruitment agency Kelly Services.

'This may have resulted in a lapse in keeping up to date with policies, and thus miscommunication and misunderstanding between employers and employees.'

Eight of the 10 SME employers The Straits Times spoke to said manpower constraints arising from having pregnant employees are the main reasons why they will have to let them go.

'We have only two clerical staff,' said Mr Sam Soh, 48, who runs a bakery business with 30 staff. 'If one goes on maternity leave for four months, we will suffer a serious backlog of work.'

Meanwhile, the employee is not always the victim. Of last year's cases, 25 complaints were rejected, withdrawn by the employees because their cases were too weak, or are still under investigation.

The MOM said that in one such case, a pre-school teacher was given notice when she was four months pregnant.

The centre said her service was terminated because of unsatisfactory work performance, frequent absence and lateness.

Its records showed she had taken 11 days of unpaid leave in the four months of her employment, often at the last minute, and she was often late for work.

Her appeal was rejected as MOM agreed that the decision to fire her had nothing to do with her pregnancy as it was made before she told them.

One SME boss, Mr Clinton Ang, who runs Cornerstone Wines, said: 'Perhaps instead of just focusing on protecting employees, employers can be protected too from unfair complaints.'

Under the Employment Act, employers cannot sack an employee who is on maternity leave, and also cannot sack an employee six months before her due date without sufficient cause.