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TUC: Parental rights should be a right and not a favour

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The TUC is today (Wednesday) calling on the government to stand firm in the face of employer claims that any new legal right allowing parents to change their working hours would be an unnecessary burden on UK businesses.

In its submission to the Work and parents green paper released today to coincide with the opening of its 71st Women’s Conference in Scarborough, the TUC says that if the government is serious about helping working parents cope with the demands of work and home, it should press ahead with proposals to allow workers to request a reduction in their hours.

And before it introduces new flexible rights to help working parents, the TUC says the government could help several million parents at a stroke by dropping its opposition to the TUC parental leave case currently awaiting consideration by European judges.

Last May the TUC took the government to court over its interpretation of the Parental Leave Directive. The TUC argued that by only allowing parents with children born after 15 December 1999 to take the 13 weeks unpaid leave, the government was misinterpreting the Directive, denying some three million parents their rights to parental leave.

To date, some half a million parents – whose children were born before the December 1999 cut-off and who have now had their fifth birthdays – have lost out on the parental leave to which the TUC believes they are legally entitled. The TUC is hopeful that this week will see the European Court announce a date for the case to be heard.

The TUC green paper submission – Rights not favours – urges the government not to cave in to the employer lobby, and says that only a legal right would introduce true flexible working into UK workplaces. Although many good employers already realise the benefits of offering flexible working to their staff, the current voluntary approach will never be enough, says the TUC.

Rights not favours reminds the government that a right to work reduced hours has overwhelming public support. The submission quotes a recent EOC poll which found that 79% of respondents said that parents should have a legal right to move from full to part time working.

TUC General Secretary John Monks said: ‘The employer lobby are united in opposing moves to make work more family-friendly. But they try to have it both ways. One minute they say nothing needs to be done because companies are already making changes. The next minute they say that helping new parents manage work and home life better is an intolerable burden on business that will lead to mass unemployment.

‘The truth is that this is a knee-jerk response to reforms that once implemented will become uncontroversial and simply taken for granted. In the meantime British businesses who oppose reform risk being labelled anti-children. Only new legal duties can help end our unhealthy long hours culture which is as bad for workers’ families as it is for their employers. If the rest of Europe can afford to be flexible in the interests of parents, should it really be so difficult to achieve over here?

‘The government could act now to make work more family-friendly by ceding to the TUC’s parental leave legal arguments. And of even greater benefit, would be the start of paid parental leave. Sadly in its current unpaid form, parental leave exists as little more than a paper right, with too few parents being able to benefit.’

UK workers work by far the longest hours in Europe, making new parents desire to work fewer hours even more understandable, says the TUC. Across Europe under 10% of full-time employees work for 48 hours or more (compared to 23% in the UK). And almost a quarter of UK male full-time employees with dependent children work for more than 60 hours a week.

The TUC says that a number of European countries have introduced laws allowing parents to change or reduce their hours, without a detrimental effect on the competitiveness of companies. In the Netherlands for example, a new law was introduced last July , giving employees the right to change their working hours from full to part-time.

Rights not favours would like to see the government press ahead with measures to:

  • allow mothers who return to work before the end of their maternity leave to work reduced hours for the remainder of the period for which they could have been off work.
  • introduce a legal framework to encourage employers and parents to agree requests for reduced hours or more flexible working. Workers should have their requests accepted unless the employer can demonstrate a good reason why not. Any refusal to grant changes in hours should be given in writing.
  • ensure small businesses are not exempted from any new flexible working proposals.
The TUC submission also contains details of recent TUC focus group research with 20 new mothers that found several examples where employers had refused to consider a reduced hours return to work:
  • When Angela had her first child five years ago, she asked her building society employer if she could return to her job as a branch supervisor on a part time basis at the end of her maternity leave. Angela’s request was refused because her employer said the branch already had two many part timers (there were two), and that supervisors had to work full time. Following her employer’s inflexible response, Angela decided not to return to work, and found a job where she was able to work more suitable hours.
  • Two years ago, Louise became pregnant after working for a computer training company for seven years. When she asked the director of the company if she could come back part-time after maternity leave, she said that he ‘put her through hell’. As a result, she decided not to go back to her job after maternity leave, despite being the main wage earner in her household. She now works part time for a company that allows her to work from home for some of the time.
  • Natasha has decided not to return to work, mainly because she wants to spend as much time as possible with her son, but also because if she returned to her job as PA to a financial consultant, she would want to work part-time. She doesn’t believe her employers would agree to it. ‘There’s no way they would allow me to work less hours. Once you’re in work, there’s lots of pressure and they expect you to be at their beck and call.’
Flexibility and parental leave will be just two of the topics up for discussion at the TUC Women’s Conference in Scarborough which opens this afternoon and runs until Friday. Minister for Women and Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay addresses the 400 delegates today, and TUC General Secretary John Monks and TUC President Bill Morris will give speeches tomorrow (Thursday).


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