Government must seize the initiative on flexible working
The Flexible Working Bill would give workers a “day one right” to work flexibly, and compel employers to advertise how jobs could be done flexibly.
During the height of the pandemic, the risk of serious illness and death or a £10,000 fine for breaching covid-rules were compelling reasons for office-workers and their bosses to agree to home-working arrangements.
However, the majority of jobs still cannot be done from home, and many other types of flexible work have fallen by the wayside. Job-shares, flexi-time, compressed hours, part-time hours, and term-time working, have all reduced significantly according to research by the CIPD. This is despite TUC studies showing over 80% of workers wanting to work flexibly.
Data from the Pregnant Then Screwed employment helpline showed calls relating to flexible working (excluding home-working) doubled from 2019 to 2020, but that the percentage of requests granted by employers fell from 47% to 29%.
On Wednesday, the government has the opportunity to reverse this trend, by supporting Labour MP Tulip Siddiq’s Flexible Working Bill. The ten-minute rule bill, which has cross-party support, would give workers a “day one right” to work flexibly, and, importantly, compel employers to advertise how jobs could be done flexibly.
This could be a game-changer both for employers and employees. The pool of talent applying for positions would increase, with those that need flexibility able to apply for jobs with confidence that their needs will be met. Equally, the need for employers to properly consider flexibility when advertising vacancies could lead to more efficient and agile ways of working than the default 9 to 5.
Fathers are twice as likely as mothers to have their flexible working requests denied
Currently employees have a “right to request” flexible working if they’ve been with an employer for over 26 weeks, but there is nothing to force employers to do anything more than consider the request in a “reasonable manner”.
However, research by the Fatherhood Institute suggests that not all requests are considered equally, with fathers twice as likely as mothers to have their flexible working requests denied. Having unequal access to flexible work reinforces gender stereotypes in the home, and can create two-tier career trajectories, with mothers on the more flexible, but often lower-paid, lower status, “mummy-track” jobs. These differences are also reflected in the widening gender pay-gap once couples have children, with mothers receiving a “motherhood penalty” and fathers getting a “daddy bonus” of increased pay, which contributes to a gender pay gap of 33% by the time a woman’s first child is 12. The gap between same-sex couples is much less pronounced.
While campaigners such as Pregnant Then Screwed and Mother Pukka have long been flying the flag for flexible working as a solution for working parents, many other groups will also benefit from a work culture that is flexible by default. Mental health, neurodiversity, caring responsibilities for adults and disability are among the many reasons employees might need flexibility, yet the way things stand, they must work for 26 weeks before they can even make the request, ruling out many jobs from that start.
The conversation around flexible work has evolved over the years, from 2003 when a request from parents and carers of young children had to be “seriously considered”, to 2014 when the obligation for employers to consider flexible working requests in a “reasonable manner” was rolled out for all employees with 26 weeks service. In 2019, both Labour and the Conservatives had commitments in their 2019 manifestos to move towards making flexible working the default.
Covid has understandably delayed much of the legislative agenda for the government, but as the country reopens, the time is right to upgrade our employment laws for the changed world in which we find ourselves, and give all workers the flexibility they need.
Olga FitzRoy sits on the Policy and Campaigns board for the charity Pregnant Then Screwed.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.