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Too many working parents are struggling to achieve more than a work-life compromise and unlawful practice by unscrupulous employers ever more difficult to challenge, according to Working Families’ annual legal helpline report.
Working Families’ report shows many of the 2,600 working parents and carers who contacted the helpline in 2013 were trying to work out how they can make work pay after all the benefits changes that have been made in recent months. Others were trying to adopt a new, family-friendly working pattern in response to a major change of family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown or the onset of disability of their child, says the report.
The helpline’s team of advisers also noted 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.
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to the helpline are reporting the family-friendly working pattern they have had in place for years being changed or withdrawn virtually overnight, with no opportunity for them to express their views and negotiate either retention of the existing pattern or, failing that, a mutually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 are Kathryn, a mother of three young children, who 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. 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.
Sarah Jackson said: “I’m especially pleased that, as in Harini’s case, our helpline team is able to support many callers through negotiating a positive solution, enabling them to stay with their employer. But we see 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. 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.“
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 1,000 in September, 1,620 in October, 1,840 in November, and 1,500 in December.
Working Families says 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 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 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.