Three student midwives are taking the government, the hospitals where they have placements and their universities to an employment tribunal over their lack of maternity rights.
The students, who work up to 30 hours a week in hospital as well as being on call, were shocked to learn they have no right to time off if they become pregnant, even for hospital appointments, because they are not classed as employees.
But Clare Fletcher, aged 40, from London, Tracey Parkes, aged 37, from Bournemouth (right) and Shelley Wilkinson, aged 26, from Nottingham, argue that despite being students they should be treated as workers entitled to benefits such as maternity pay and leave.
Their campaign was sparked when Ms Fletcher, a student at King's College London, found she was pregnant. As a result of pregnancy-related illness she decided to take maternity leave early, only to be told she had no right to it.
She said: "Our job is to empower women to make the right choices about birth. It's crazy that maternity leave is not offered to us. The irony is massive."
To add insult to injury, the National Health Service Student Grants Unit asked her to repay £460 of her annual £7,000 bursary - which allows up to 60 days' sick leave - because she had "withdrawn" from her course. Her bursary was stopped, even though her tutors agreed she could continue the following year.
Ms Fletcher has been contacted by student midwives and nurses in a similar situation, some of whom worked up to the day their babies were born.
Student poverty compounds the problem. Hospital hours mean student nurses cannot take part-time jobs to enable them to build up national insurance contributions and entitle them to benefits.
The campaign has the support of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the Equal Opportunities Commission, Parents at Work and the Maternity Alliance.
Joanna Wade, solicitor for the group, said European law states that workers who take time off to have babies should be paid "an adequate allowance" and given maternity leave. "It's impossible to deny that student midwives work, yet they don't count in the benefit system as employee earners."
Sue Jacob, a midwife and student services adviser at the RCM, said there was a national shortage of midwives, with increasing numbers of mature entrants to midwifery. She said she was proud of the students' stand against covert sexism, which in the past had forced women to drop out.
The Department of Health refused to comment but said: "They are students so they are treated as students. They're not actually employed."
The tribunal hearing will be in December 2003. A ruling in the students'
favour could set a precedent, prompting many other students on vocational courses such as nursing to lodge claims.
'Having a baby should not mean a cut in bursary'
Tracey Parkes has been signed off sick for two months from her course at Bournemouth University when the stress of catching up after having a baby took its toll.
She left an office job to train as a midwife in 2000, on an annual bursary of about £6,000. Each week, she spent a day in college and 30 hours in a hospital.
She found she was pregnant in the second year. Her tutors were supportive and, as her baby was due two months before the end of her academic year, she chose to continue. She worked up to the birth, hoping to catch up the clinical hours later. But the NHS Student Grants Unit (SGU) told to her that only 36 months' bursary was available. "If I continued at the end of the course, some time would be unbursaried. Financially, it was not an option."
Despite having a caesarean, she missed only three academic sessions, returning to college five weeks later and to her clinical placement after nine weeks. She was back full time after three months, working extra hours to make up time.
Ironically, she was advising women to take time out with their children.
"They would ask when I was starting my maternity leave, and I'd have to say: 'I don't get any.'"
She wants the tribunal to force the SGU to give students three months' maternity break without forfeiting their bursaries.