Saturday, June 14, 2008

Flexible Working: A Small Change For The Better

It seems that the government has agreed to extend flexible working legislation to cover parents of kids up to the age of 16. As someone who proposed a resolution demanding this at TUC Women's Conference a while back, I'm pleased. The existing legislation, under which you could only request changes to your hours and location of work when your child was 5 or under (unless s/he is disabled) seemed to suggest that juggling the demands of work and children becomes a piece of piss on the day the littl'un turns six. Not.

Mind you, it remains merely a right to ask for flexible working, and employers retain the near-limitless right to say 'bugger off'. As with many employment laws, its usefulness in the workplace is limited by the weakness of the law itself, and also dependant on the strength of union organisation. In a non- or weakly-unionised workplace, the boss will feel free to say yes or no entirely on their own whim. But with a strong union, high membership level, and trained, confident reps well-integrated into an active branch, you have a much better chance of workers getting what they need.

I represent quite a number of union members in flexible working applications. You win some, you lose some. The legislation sets up the member to have to practically beg their manager to make adjustments to their working conditions that are actually no big deal for the company but mean the world to the worker. Sadly, you also frequently have to contend with resentment amongst the workforce, sometimes deliberately stoked up by managers. In a shiftwork industry, workers can get to believing that if someone gets, for example, daytime weekday shifts, then that's not fair on everyone else who has to do the dead-early starts, post-midnight finishes and weekends. Somehow, it gets forgotten that many flexible working applicants ask for shifts that most workers would consider anti-social, meaning that their workmates have to do these less often.

So this new change in the law is welcome, but does not not go nearly far enough. Workers need the right not just to ask for hours that fit our caring responsibilities but the right to get them. And to get them without causing detriment to other workers.

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