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Why everyone should have the right to work flexibly

Published date
It's time to change the law so that every employer has a duty to offer flexible working from day one in the job.

For some flexible work can mean a happier work-life balance, for some it can mean the difference between being able to work or not.

Right now, options like part-time, flexible hours, home working, compressed hours and job share are only accessible to some workers.

One in three requests for flexible working is being rejected, and over half of the UK workforce has no access to flexi-time at all.

So the "right to request" that underpins the current system is not working.

The government is currently running a consultation to inform the future of flexible work.

We’ve submitted a response outlining why we believe flexible work should be available to every worker from day one in the job – and that flexible work options should be published in job adverts.

We think everyone deserves flexibility at work. If you agree, please fill in the survey and help pressure the government to change the current system.

Why is flexible working important?

Flexible working helps people achieve a balance between work and home life. And we know it could be a catalyst greater gender equality.

It gives parents and carers a greater say in how and when they share their caring responsibilities and helps address some of the barriers disabled workers face in the workplace.

Trade unions have used the current right to request to negotiate enhanced flexible working agreements.

We’ve also campaigned for greater flexibility and enhanced leave and pay for parents and carers.

We’ve made progress, but there’s still a long way to go.

What needs to change?

It’s been five years since the law on flexible working changed, with all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service having a right to request flexible working.

But it hasn’t brought about the change that we need to break down the barriers to flexible work.

For too many the right to request is just a right be refused which makes it a meaningless ‘right’.

There is no statutory right of appeal and the eight statutory “business reasons” employers can use to refuse a request are so broad, they have almost complete freedom to turn people down at will.

The government needs to make flexible working the default option by introducing a duty for employers to advertise all jobs as flexible, being clear in the job advert the types of flexibility available and giving workers the right to take up the advertised flexibility from day one of the job.

And where employers feel that a particular role cannot be carried out with any form of flexibility, they should be required to explain the exceptional circumstances that justify this decision.

The criteria used to justify refusing requests should also be more tightly drawn and an appeals process should be introduced to allow for scrutinise and challenge when a request has been rejected.

What about voluntary reporting?

Some have suggested that the best way forward is a voluntary approach.

We strongly disagree. Voluntary approaches don’t work – just look at gender pay gap reporting.

Years of government promotion of voluntary reporting led to fewer than 10 firms actually publishing information about their gender pay gap.

Yet in the first year of mandatory reporting, 10,500 firms reported, with 100% compliance achieved within a few weeks of the deadline.

Scandinavian countries lead the way in positive approaches to flexible working. This position is built on strong legislation, not voluntary approaches.

In Sweden, parents have a legal entitlement to reduce their working hours by up to 25 per cent until the child’s eighth birthday, with a return to full hours guaranteed thereafter.

In Finland, parents have a right to work reduced working hours from the end of parental leave until the end of the child’s second year at school.

And their new Working Hours Act which comes into force in 2020 will make it the most progressive country in this area, leading the world in promoting flexible working.

So it’s clear that the best way to shift entrenched work cultures around flexible working is to bring in new legislation.

Time for real change

It’s National Work Life Week and if the government is serious about improving access to flexible working, it needs to go far beyond asking employers to just publish warm words about flexible working in their job ads.

This could lead to employers merely paying lip service to the process without actually delivering more flexible roles.

The best way forward is to introduce tighter legislation that will motivate employers to change their approach once and for all.

And employers should work together with trade unions to create flexible working arrangements that are workable for all their staff.

Because working people should have much greater access to flexible working options than they do today. And we’re clear that legislative change is needed to achieve this.

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