By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer
In the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for radical legal and cultural change to “make family-friendly working the new norm in Britain”, the latest annual report of our legal helpline shows too many working parents struggling to hold onto family-friendly employment, and unlawful practice by unscrupulous employers ever more difficult to challenge.
Katrina is a young single mother working in the care home sector. Two years ago, when Katrina separated from her partner, her then manager agreed to Katrina reducing her hours and working a set shift pattern, as Katrina no longer had anyone to share the childcare with. However, that manager has now left, and Katrina’s new manager has told her that she must from now on work full-time, and on variable shift patterns. Katrina wants to keep her job, but knows she has little hope of finding affordable childcare to cover the new shift patterns that would now be involved.
Katrina is just one of the 2,585 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women – who called or emailed the Working Families legal helpline in 2013. The helpline team provide free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, time off in an emergency, and unpaid parental leave. They provide help with requesting and negotiating flexible working (or with contesting imposed changes to an existing flexible working arrangement), and with challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination in the workplace. And they offer advice on relevant social security benefits and tax credits.
With changes to the social security system – including the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and a freeze on Child Benefit – continuing to hit low-income families hard, and childcare and other essential living costs rising faster than wages, many of those who contacted the helpline in 2013 were trying to work out how they can make work pay. And others were trying to adopt a new, family-friendly working pattern following maternity leave, or in response to a major change of family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown or the onset of disability of their child.
But in 2013 the helpline’s team of advisers dealt with an increased number of cases in which the caller’s employer had imposed, or was seeking to impose, a significant change in hours or work pattern, without adequate consultation and with little if any consideration for the resultant difficulty in meeting family responsibilities.
Launching the report earlier today, Working Families Chief Executive, Sarah Jackson said:
A growing number of callers to the helpline are reporting the family-friendly working pattern they have had in place for years being changed or withdrawn virtually overnight, with no opportunity for them to express their views and negotiate either retention of the existing pattern or, failing that, a mutually agreeable compromise.
Among the case studies highlighted in the report:
Kathryn, a mother of three young children, called the Helpline after being told by her employer – a small retailer – she had to increase her hours and work Saturdays, with immediate effect. Kathryn had been employed by the company for 19 years, during which time she had only ever worked on weekdays. Kathryn’s partner already worked Saturdays, and the couple could not afford extra childcare for the Saturday.
Robin, a father of two young children, one of them disabled, had been employed as a lab technician for ten years. For the past three years, Robin had worked from 6.30 am to 2.30 pm each weekday, so as to cover the afternoon school run. Now his employer had told Robin that he must change his hours to 8.30 am to 5.15 pm, which would make it impossible for Robin to be available for either school run.
Harini, a children’s centre worker, was told that on her return from maternity leave she would have to change her long-established flexible working pattern so as to do more work from the office and less from home, despite her role having become more strategy-based. With the helpline team’s assistance, Harini submitted a formal grievance, and the employer then backed down, allowing Harini to return to work on her previous working pattern.
It is especially pleasing when, as in Harini’s case, our helpline team is able to support many callers through negotiating an agreeable solution, enabling them to stay with their employer. But the team deal with far too many cases in which the employer is unreasonably intransigent, and the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees last year appears to have put formal legal action out of the reach of many.
The most recent official figures show a dramatic fall in the number of employment tribunal claims by individual claimants, from an average of 4,530 per month before the introduction of fees in July 2013, to just 1,000 in September, 1,620 in October, 1,840 in November, and 1,500 in December.
This matters, because if vulnerable workers cannot access the tribunal system, then unlawful practice by less scrupulous employers – whether inadvertent or deliberately exploitative – will go unchecked, and more employers will be tempted to similarly disregard the rights of their workers when seeking to make organisational changes.
As employment barrister Natasha Joffe noted recently in a great blog post on Mumsnet, “since July 2013, thousands of people who would otherwise have done so have not complained about breaches of their employment rights. Worse than that, the fact that very few people can now bring claims at all means that the pressure on employers to comply with employment laws is vastly diminished”.
That is clearly unfair to the workers concerned, as well as to the great majority of employers who readily abide by the law and do their best for their workforce. But it also makes the work of our helpline team that much more difficult, and that much more important.
The report concludes that, to protect gender equality, tackle the widespread discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave, and support the extension (from June) of the right to request flexible working and the new right (from April 2015) to shared parental leave, fees for claimants should – at the very least – be reduced to a nominal level.
The report also recommends that all new fathers should be eligible to at least two weeks of paid paternity leave at the time of or soon after the birth, without having to meet inordinately long service and notice requirements (currently, fathers have to have had 26 weeks service by the 15th week before the expected date of childbirth). And it calls on the Government, trade unions and employer bodies to jointly explore what more can be done to ensure that employers act legally and follow best practice when seeking to make changes to pay, hours or working patterns.