To make flexible working the default, ministers cannot take half measures

Alice Arkwright

Imagine you – like eight in ten working people – would like to work flexibly. Maybe you’re a parent who needs to balance work with childcare, or an older worker who wants make changes ahead of retirement.

You know that around a third of requests are turned down. You know that you only get one chance a year to ask for the working pattern you need. And you know that your employer has free rein to turn you down and, if they do, there’s no right to appeal. So, as you make your request to your boss you’re nervous – it’s a big gamble.

Now imagine that every job ad has to have the flexible working options available in that specific role listed in the advert. You know before you apply what’s on offer – because there are flexible working options that work in every job. And when you start, you have a right to take up any of those flexible working options immediately – on day one. Imagine how many more people would be able to work in a way that worked for them. That’s the difference a day one right to flexible working and an advertising duty would make.

Tonight, the government’s consultation on flexible working closes. Urgent action is needed to make flexible working the norm. But the government’s proposals won’t be the game changer ministers claim.

Our research with working mums shows the system is broken. A third of mums told us they wouldn’t ask for flexible working for fear of being turned down or receiving negative treatment. Of those who did ask, half said their current employer had rejected or only accepted part of their flexible working request. If working mums did get flexible working, nearly nine in ten experienced disadvantage and discrimination as a result of working flexibly.

We need changes to flexible working if we’re serious about women’s equality. An underlying cause of the gender pay gap is the lack of flexible working, pushing women into low-paid, part-time work. And increased flexible working would give dads the opportunity to take on more caring responsibilities, reducing the burden on women. It is also vital for disabled workers, older workers and those with other caring responsibilities. It allows everyone time for life outside of work.

The government has realised the popularity of flexible working amongst the public – eight in ten people want to work flexibly – and the benefits it could bring to the economy through boosting productivity, increasing staff retention and improving recruitment.

Ministers’ main proposal is to give people the right to ask for flexible working from the first day of their job. Spot the huge flaw. You have to apply for a job, get appointed, start the job – and only then can you ask for the flexible working pattern you need. Or you have to ask about flexible working in a job interview – opening up a massive opportunity for employers to discriminate against you – and appoint the man who can work on a traditional pattern.

And there’s another flaw too. With a day one right to request, employers are still free to turn down any or all requests for flexible working. The right to ask nicely is no right at all.

That’s why employers should have to think upfront about the flexible working options that are available in each role, publish these in all job adverts and give people the right to take these up from the first day in the job. If an employer doesn’t think any type of flexibility is possible, they should be required to properly justify why not in the ad. And every worker should have the right to work flexibly, not just the right to ask.

We asked HR managers if this would be manageable – and they said yes. The majority said it would be easy to identify what types of flexible working are possible in each job and include specific information about potential flexible working arrangements in job adverts.

More than 5,000 individuals – mums, dads, disabled people and carers, among others – have used a TUC tool to respond to the consultation to tell ministers that they need to bring in a realistic right to flexible working.

If ministers genuinely want to make flexible working the default, we need job ads to specify flexible working options. It’s time to dump the system based on individuals asking nicely and hoping for the best.

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