Yesterday, Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, brought some good news to exasperated parents. From next spring, they will legally have the right to request flexible working hours from their employers. If the employer says no, they must demonstrate they have a legitimate business reason for doing so. Finally, the case may go to a tribunal if necessary.
Hewitt maintains that this measure will accelerate the move towards a better work-life balance, achieving in one generation what would have otherwise taken two decades. However, is such hype likely to match the results in three years, and will they meet their objective of creating a workplace where the majority who want to can tailor their working day without harming their job or prospects?
Hewitt first wrote About Time, The Revolution in Work and Family Life eight years ago when she was the Deputy Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research Think Tank, where she argued for a better work-life balance and varied working hours. Yesterday’s proposals reflect the balance between Hewitt’s commitment to these principles and her role in a government whose weakness is the desire to keep corporate interests satisfied, even when it adversely affects their profits.
The proposals originate from a Work and Parent Task Force report chaired by Sir George Bain. The task force recommends acting prudently with businesses, particularly small ones, since more than ninety percent of UK companies employ less than twenty staff. Many of these small businesses – forty percent owned by women – already offer flexible working hours without going bankrupt. Large corporations likewise recognise that flexible working hours mean lower turnover, fewer recruitment costs, less absenteeism, less days off, and more profit. According to one FTSE-100 companies survey, shares of a quarter of the companies with a 21st-century attitude to work have increased by 114% over five years, compared to the FTSE average of 78%.
What’s welcome about this legislation is that it recognises the right of parents to request different hours in law for the first time, giving better visibility to families. Secondly, even resistant employers will be obliged to give serious consideration to requests for flexibility, rather than dismissing them out of hand. Finally, it will theoretically make it simpler for fathers to request a customised working day, ending the misconception that work-life balance is solely a women’s issue.
However, the proposals have fundamental flaws, such as only parents of children under six or disabled children under 18 being eligible. Childcare is often challenging to find for both babies and over-sixes. The government estimates that 509,000 out of the 3.8 million working parents of children under six years of age will request changed hours, with 82% of these requests receiving approval.
Hewitt will need plenty of magic on her side to achieve even a fraction of these desired outcomes. In Britain, requests for flexible working have a long and mostly unhappy history. A recently conducted survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that employers denied more than half of all requests for flexibility or offered unacceptable arrangements. Approximately one in three of those denied requests were terminated, made redundant, or had no choice but to resign.
With such a backdrop, it is understandable that low-paid workers refuse to "make trouble" as they face the real possibility of being replaced. Furthermore, employers can cite commercial or business reasons while refusing requests before the case even goes to a tribunal. Public sector workers are especially vulnerable, and a social worker requesting a 25-hour week in a department with 30% of its positions unfilled will have a tough time. If a case does go to a tribunal, the panel has no power to assess the employer’s case’s merits.
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