Tag Archives: Zero-hours contracts

Tackling the wrong kind of flexibility: the work of our legal helpline in 2014

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Amid the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, and with research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the London School of Economics suggesting that the Coalition’s tax and benefit reforms have hit families with children under five harder than any other household type, 2014 was another busy year for the Working Families helpline team.

Simon, a single parent working for a provider of services to the elderly, called the helpline after his employer refused his formal request to change his work pattern to accommodate an unavoidable change in his childcare. Although employed on a zero-hours contract, Simon had for several years worked five full days a week, including Saturday and Sunday. But now his childcare support had changed, Simon could no longer work weekends, and he was afraid he would have to give up his job.

Simon is one of 2,766 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women, and almost one in four a single parent – who telephoned or emailed the helpline in 2014. The helpline team provides free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, provides support on requesting and negotiating flexible working – or with contesting imposed changes to an existing working arrangement – and advises on challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination at work and accessing relevant social security benefits and tax credits.

The team’s annual report, published today, shows that, despite some reduced capacity due to staff changes, and an increase in the proportion of callers requiring more than one interaction, the team advised and supported almost 200 more callers than in 2013. And, as in previous years, the most common issues raised by callers were: maternity leave and pay; benefits and tax credits; other maternity rights; flexible working; and pregnancy or maternity related discrimination.

With essential living costs having risen faster than wages in recent years, and childcare costs continuing to spiral upwards, many of those who contacted the helpline were simply struggling to find a way to make work pay.

Nicky called the helpline shortly after returning to work from maternity leave, because she was struggling with the cost of childcare for her six-months-old child. Nicky earns just over £20,000 per year, and her partner – an apprentice electrician – £15,000 per year. The helpline team was able to confirm that Nicky is receiving the right level of working tax credit, but Nicky feels she has no choice but to give up work to care for her child.

Many of the women on maternity leave who contacted the helpline team were finding it difficult to manage on the weekly statutory maternity pay of just £138.18, capped at below-inflation annual increases since 2013 and equal to just 60 per cent of the national minimum wage.

Jackie called the helpline while on maternity leave and receiving statutory maternity pay, because she wanted to take more than nine months’ maternity leave but simply couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave. The helpline team reports that this is a “very common call”, and that many women in low-paid jobs have little choice but to return to work at the end of statutory maternity pay.

Many others who called or emailed the helpline in 2014 were trying to adopt a flexible working pattern in response to a major change in their caring responsibilities, such as taking on the care of an elderly parent, relationship breakdown, or the onset of disability of a child or partner. And, in theory at least, this became easier from June 2014, with the extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working, previously limited to parents and carers. In the words of the then employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, “we want to see flexible working become the norm, not the exception”.

However, the helpline team report that, if there is one stand-out feature of their work in 2014, it is that the notion of flexible working is simply illusory for all too many of the parents and carers who contact the team for help.

The wrong kind of flexibility

In low-paid sectors like social care, retail, cleaning, and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of men and especially women work on zero-hours contracts and other ‘casualised’ forms of employment that offer little in the way of pay, guaranteed hours or job security.  And what Citizens Advice calls the “hyper-flexibility” of such jobs is all one way.

By their nature, such insecure jobs, with varying and unpredictable weekly hours, can result in significant variations in income, making it hard to arrange (or retain) childcare and disrupting social security payments. But they also make it very difficult if not impossible for workers to successfully request a change in their hours or working pattern to accommodate a change in their family circumstances, or to resist a problematic change in their hours or working pattern imposed by their employer.

For a refusal to work shorter, longer or simply different hours can easily lead to there being no hours at all. And the introduction of upfront tribunal fees in July 2013, unaffordable to many, has made it harder than it’s ever been to challenge any unlawful action on the part of the employer. In the months following the introduction of fees, claims for unfair dismissal fell by 65 per cent, and claims for sex or pregnancy discrimination fell by 80 per cent. In the words of one senior employment judge, it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that access to justice has been curtailed”.

Mandy had worked for a bank on a zero-hours contract for several months without any indication from her employer of dissatisfaction with her work. However, when Mandy informed her employer she was pregnant, her manager stated there had been complaints about her work. And, when Mandy challenged this, the manager changed the story to “you haven’t been working hard enough”. Mandy’s hours were then reduced to zero – in effect, she was summarily dismissed.

Similarly, Denise, employed on a zero-hours contract, had had her working hours substantially cut since she had taken time off for a pregnancy-related illness. When she had challenged her employer, pointing out that several new staff had been taken on, she was told “we need people we can rely on”. The helpline team advised Denise that her treatment amounted to pregnancy discrimination, but Denise said there was no way she could afford to pay the fees of £1,200 to pursue a tribunal claim.

Against this rather grim backdrop, the helpline team can – and frequently does – make a huge difference to the situation of individual callers. Good information and personalised advice empowers callers to make an informed decision about whether and how to negotiate with their employer, the most effective way to challenge unlawful treatment, or how to change their working pattern in such a way to maximise their income once benefit payments, tax credit awards and childcare costs are taken into account.

Evidence from the casework of the helpline team also informs the wider policy and campaigning activity of Working Families, including our ‘families and work’ manifesto for next month’s General Election. So we remain extremely grateful to the team’s key funders, Matrix Chambers and the Big Lottery Fund, and to our many other supporters who make the work of the team possible.

An afternoon in Westminster: the Working Families policy conference

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Last Tuesday, some 120 policy wonks, campaigners and academics  gathered in Portcullis House, Westminster for the second Working Families annual policy conference, kindly hosted by former cabinet minister Maria Miller MP. With the presentation of two new Working Families reports, keynote speeches by MPs from each of the three main parties, and panel discussions on ‘The 21st Century Working Family’ and ‘Tackling In-Work Poverty’, there was a crowded agenda. And it being exactly 100 days to go to the General Election on 7 May seemed to add a certain spice to the debate.

Not surprisingly, there was much talk of manifestos, and some very welcome indication from the three MPs – Maria Miller for the Conservatives, shadow childcare minister Alison McGovern for Labour, and BIS minister Jo Swinson for the Liberal Democrats – of cross-party support for key policy asks in the Families & Work Manifesto for May 2015, developed by Working Families, Family & Childcare Trust, Fatherhood Institute, Fawcett Society, Gingerbread, Grandparents Plus, Maternity Action, NCT, Parents Across Scotland, Single Parents Action Network, TUC, Women’s Budget Group and others.

Noting the “record numbers of women in work” and that “the sandwich-generation faces the dual challenge of childcare and eldercare”, Maria Miller said “we have to ensure that a model of work designed by men for men is not just given a lick of paint. We have to make flexible working the norm.” Mrs Miller suggested that the Families & Work Manifesto call for adoption of a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector is “something that should be taken up by all three main parties.”

On childcare, Mrs Miller noted that, while overall supply has greatly increased over the past two decades, “affordability and flexibility are the challenges we’ve yet to meet.” And, as demonstrated in the new Working Families report Off Balance, launched at the conference, this is especially true for the working parents of disabled children and young people, for whom childcare is not just an ‘under fives’ issue.

Picking up on one of the key findings from the new Modern Families Index, also launched at the conference, that “there is an appetite among working parents” for the Shared Parental Leave (SPL) that comes fully into force in April, employment relations and equalities minister Jo Swinson noted that “the cost of childcare can be a major barrier to new mothers returning to work after maternity leave” but “childcare is not just an issue for women.” Ms Swinson believes the availability of SPL will “prompt a conversation” between parents on how to share their new caring responsibilities.

Endorsing Maria Miller’s call for private sector employers to adopt the Happy to Talk Flexible Working strap line developed by Working Families,  Ms Swinson argued that male business leaders should “use their visibility to set a good example” on flexible working and shared parenting. The Families & Work Manifesto calls for ministers to act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and encourage use of the strapline.

Following a theme that was later to be raised again and again in the two panel discussions, Alison McGovern argued that policy-formulation on childcare and flexible working must recognise, and reflect, the reality of life for millions of low-paid working parents. For all to many low-paid working mothers in particular, flexible working now means only a zero-hours contract, with no security of job or income. And, with wild fluctuations in weekly income, finding and holding on to affordable childcare becomes a near impossibility. All too often, “families have no choice at all.”

Ms McGovern also flagged up a need to focus on the necessarily long-term goal of a seamless framework of parental leave rights and State-funded childcare. As Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus was later to highlight, some 50 per cent of working families rely on grandparents to fill the current ‘childcare gap’ between the end of statutory maternity leave (at 12 months) and the start of free entitlement to childcare (at three years).

In the two panel debates that followed an all-too-brief break for coffee, the delegates and panel members – Alison Garnham of CPAG, Fiona Weir of Gingerbread, Sam Royston of The Children’s Society, Ellen Broome of Family & Childcare Trust, William McDonald of the Fatherhood Institute, and Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus – confirmed by their contributions that, despite welcome progress in the law, public policy, and practice of many employers on flexible working and shared parenting, there remains, in Maria Miller’s words, “far more to do”. Falling real wages, growing casualisation of the labour market, spiralling childcare costs, and swingeing cuts to maternity benefits in recent years have made being a working parent more challenging than ever for all too many.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn what ideas politicians such as Alison McGovern, Maria Miller and Jo Swinson and their parties have for the next government to make work work that little bit better for parents, carers and their families.

You can now follow this blog on the new Working Families website blog pages

How employers can reduce in-work poverty

In this guest post, Katie Schmuecker of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that employers have an important part to play in reducing the UK’s serious and growing problem of in-work poverty.

There are 1.4m jobs being done by people on zero-hours contacts, according to new figures published by the ONS. This means a fairly sizable chunk of the workforce has a job, but won’t necessarily be offered any hours by their employer from one week to the next. Perhaps it is not surprising that zero-hours contracts have become the poster-boy for bad employment practice in 21st century Britain.

But as the debate about an appropriate response to this particular problem steps up a gear, there is a risk that we fail to see the wood for the trees. As pernicious as the insecurity brought by zero-hours contracts can be for some workers, they are but one part of the UK’s much bigger problem of in-work poverty.

More than half of the 13 million people experiencing poverty in the UK live in a household where at least one person is working. This gives an indication of the scale of the problem. And it is not a problem that can be solved by pushing up the minimum wage and regulating the use of zero-hours contracts alone. Neither is it a task that government can tackle alone: employers also have an important part to play.

New research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examines how employers can help to tackle working poverty. It takes paying the Living Wage as a given, and asks what other employment and management practices might help to address poverty. Written by economist John Philpott, importantly it also asks what the business case is for employers implementing different practices.

The report looks across human resources management and development practices such as structured recruitment, training, performance management, flexible working and fringe benefits, such as help with travel and childcare costs or access to a staff discount scheme. It finds that – when delivered well – these practices can help employees progress to a better job, reduce the stress of balancing work and home life, and help reduce the cost of living. For employers they can boost productivity, employee motivation and loyalty. They can also reduce staff turnover costs and absenteeism.

So far sounds like a win-win situation.

But there are three caveats.

First, getting the desired outcome relies on practices being delivered by good-quality managers, an area where the UK falls short compared to other competitor countries.

Second, they seem to work better when employees are involved in decision making, for example through trades unions or staff councils.

Third, and most challenging, is the large number of British businesses operating perfectly profitably competing on the basis of low-cost and low-quality products and services. So long as these companies have no difficulty hiring people into low-paid, low-skilled jobs that require little by way of formal skills, and where job-related skills can be acquired relatively quickly and cheaply, there is little incentive for them to change.

Many employers are only vaguely aware – if at all – of the problem of poverty among their workforce, and much can be achieved by working with employers to raise awareness and improve business practice in ways that are good both for the employer and the employee. We cannot simply focus on zero-hours contracts as a symbol of what is wrong with the labour market.

Rather, we need employer aspiration to translate into demand for a more skilled workforce, changing the nature of work at the bottom end of the labour market.

Until that happens ,we stand little chance of making serious headway with tackling in-work poverty.