by New Worker correspondent
Last week the TUC released a report on The Future of Flexible Work, something which it thinks is a good thing. Flexible working hours (FWH) means that people do not need to clock in at 9:00 and of at 17:00 with an hour for lunch. It can allow people to come in at 8:00 or 10:00 and leave at 16:00 or 18:00. Thy can have a half hour for lunch or two hours and work late. Doing many long working days can be rewarded with extra holiday time.
The TUC say “Genuine flexible working can be a win-win arrangement for both workers and employers. It can allow people to balance their work and home lives, is important in promoting equality at work and can lead to improved recruitment and retention of workers for employers”.
That is true to some extent. For those with a long commute an early start, it can make sense to avoid overcrowded trains, or people can leave for work after their little darlings are sent off to school. During much of his working life this correspondent was on “flexitime”. This is suitable for large organisations which have work to do outside the nine to five day. But the major drawback to FWH is that in many cases it has seen the end of overtime and unsocial shift payments.
This is generally popular with workers, with the TUC’s report showing that 82 per of those it surveyed want FWH and variations such as remote working, flexi-time, part-time work, job sharing, annualised hours, term time only working , compressed hours and mutually-agreed predictable hours. A study by the Government Equalities Office found that jobs that advertised flexibly attracted 30 per cent more applicants than those that did not.
However there are other downsides to flexible working. It can also be a polite name for zero-hours contracts and other types of insecurity which is a feature of modern capitalism. This “flexibility” means that people have to sit by their phones to know if they are going to work and earn anything that day.
The pandemic has enforced flexible working in the form of imposed working from home. This has become surprisingly popular as people can get an extra hour in bed and calls have been made for these arrangements to be made permanent. However this obviously does not apply to everyone. Nobody can make a cup of coffee or take out an appendix over the computer.
People who claim that their jobs can be done from their spare room in the suburbs ought to be aware that some bosses might take them at their word and replace workers in the office with those in a call centre in downtown Bangalore. This point seems to have been somewhat neglected by well-meaning advocates of home working.
The TUC says that after the pandemic workers should get more flexible working patterns, but warns that “steps need to be taken to ensure that the experience of those working from home does not mirror the damaging one sided ‘flexibility’ experienced by so many on zero-hours contracts, with arrangements imposed that only benefit employers”.
It demands that increased access to remote working must not come at the price of reductions to workers pay, increased intrusive remote surveillance, unsafe working environments, lack of access to union representatives, an increase in unpaid hours worked and draining, always-on cultures”.
During the pandemic homeworkers put in many extra hours. The Office of National Statistics which points out that people who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week in 2020, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never worked from home.
The TUC takes up a pledge in the 2019 Tory manifesto to make flexible working the default. It demands that a legal duty to be imposed “on employers to consider which flexible working arrangements are available in a role and publish these in job advertisements”, which naturally provides plenty of wriggle room for bosses.
More precisely it wants to abolish zero-hours contracts by giving workers the right to a contract that reflects their regular hours with at least four weeks’ notice of shifts and compensation for cancelled shifts and to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Home Work Convention.
Mobile phones and email now mean that many workers are on call even when having a bath at home, therefore the urgency of introducing a statutory right for employees and workers to disconnect from their work so as to create “communication free” time in their lives is important.
Another urgent question is that fact that every keystroke can be recorded for ever by your boss. So there is an urgent need to “amend employment and data protection legislation and provide for statutory guidance to ensure that no unlawful discriminatory decisions can be made using artificial intelligence”.
At the same time the TUC demand that employers should provide and maintain the equipment necessary for home workers to work safely and effectively (not just electronic equipment) and provide the training needed for a person to do their job remotely.
After making these modest legislative demands the TUC doffs its cap to respectfully point out that “employers do not need to wait for legislative change in making genuine flexible work the default in their workplaces and ensuring that all workers have the opportunity to benefit from positive flexibility that helps them to balance work and home life”.
Needless to say the TUC says that unions should be involved in discussions on such matters, and equally unexpectedly does not suggest taking any militant action to secure these gains.
The TUC argues that “making flexible working available in all but the most exceptional of circumstances would be an important catalyst for promoting greater gender equality” as part-time work appeals to women with child-care responsibilities, and recognises that they are often forced into it.
The report reminds us that about 3.6 million workers were in insecure work in 2019 out of a workforce of over 27 million. This unlucky 13 per cent is twice as likely to be from the ethnic minorities than white workers.
For them “flexibility” is something of a joke. Those with no or few guaranteed hours are often offered work at the whim of their employer, facing irregular hours and therefore irregular income, as well as last minute shift cancellations. Picking and choosing hours is non-existent as many feel compelled to work whenever asked, fearing that if shifts are rejected they will not be asked again. Sick pay, protections from unfair dismissal and statutory redundancy pay are non-existent.
The pandemic made things worse when 67 per cent of insecure workers saying they received nothing when off sick compared with 7 per cent of secure workers. Needing to self-isolate or take time off sick needs money many do not have.
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