FLEXIBILITY is trumpeted by the New Labour government. Flexible working practices, we are told, will benefit both workers, who will be able to spend more time with their families, and bosses, who will gain a happier and more productive workforce. A government study which made headline news last week suggests most workers also want more flexible work.
The survey of 4,000 workers found that one in three workers interviewed would prefer flexible working hours to an extra £1,000 a year or other job benefits. Bosses' organisations have created an outcry against the government's planned new legislation, due to come in on 6 April this year, which is supposed to introduce rights for workers to demand 'flexibility'. This includes a right for four million workers with children under six, and 200,000 working parents with disabled children up to age 18, to request more flexible working.
The package also includes an increase in maternity leave and pay, and the right to two weeks paid paternity leave. Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt hails the legislation as 'family friendly', helping workers to achieve a 'work-life' balance.
Of course any legislation which makes life easier for workers is welcome. But the government has already watered down its legislation under pressure from the employers. For example, there is no obligation on bosses to agree to 'flexible' arrangements.
Bosses merely have to 'seriously consider' workers' requests. The onus is on the worker to take their boss to an industrial tribunal if the firm refuses to consider flexibility. Only if the employers are proved unreasonable is the worker entitled to any compensation.
Even then the Department of Trade and Industry has ruled out the unions' demand that workers should have the right to claim compensation of up to 52 weeks pay. Instead it set the limit at eight weeks-much closer to bosses' organisations' proposals for a four-week limit.
This prompted the bosses' Financial Times to declare, 'Business leaders have won a clear victory.' The word 'flexibility' means entirely different things to bosses and workers. Workers want real measures to deal with juggling unsociable shifts and excessive working hours with bringing up children, caring for elderly relatives and getting some sort of decent home life.
For bosses flexibility is about imposing their control in the workplace, not about meeting workers' needs. It has become a code word for sacking workers, introducing longer hours, weekend or evening work, crazy shifts and fewer holidays.
Bosses use flexibility as a cover to make workers even more at their beck and call-in order to squeeze more profits from the workforce. In other words they want to increase exploitation of workers-or, as some commentators have dubbed it, 'flexploitation'.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust the number of workers employed in flexible or casual work has grown massively in recent years. So has the number of agency workers, employed with far fewer rights and benefits.
That means more evening, night and weekend work, making it even harder to fit in childcare or caring for other relatives. Today, for example, some 14 percent of mothers and 17 percent of fathers work evenings or nights several times a week.
The government's own survey itself highlighted the huge gulf between what workers want from flexibility and the 'flexible' conditions imposed on them by their employers.
The survey found that more than 80 percent of workers felt pressure to work longer hours even after they had finished for the day. Working hours in Britain are horrendous-putting huge strains on family relationships.
A US study in 2000 found that families with children in the bottom quarter for reading and maths were 'significantly more likely to face working conditions that made it difficult or impossible for parents to adequately assist their children'.
One in six of parents with children in the bottom quarter for reading worked evenings. Half of these parents lacked paid leave. Similarly one in five parents whose children had been suspended from school worked evenings, and one in eight worked nights.
And in all cases parents who were single and living near or below the poverty line had worse working conditions, less paid leave and less real flexibility. To be genuinely 'family friendly' the government, at the very minimum, should reduce the working day with no loss in pay across the board.
It should introduce more rights to paid leave, holidays and other rights at work, with real sanctions to enforce such legislation. And it should massively invest in free, or at least affordable, good quality childcare.
But this is a government in hock to the interests of big business. For Blair flexibility is part of a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation of public services and attacking workers' rights that he and his right wing pals, Berlusconi of Italy and Aznar of Spain, want to drive through across Europe.
Despite all its rhetoric, the whole thrust of New Labour's policies is to increase, not decrease, the pressures on hard-pressed parents.
One in six workers in Britain-that's some four million workers-do more than 48 hours a week.
One in four men work more than 48 hours a week.
One third of fathers in Britain spend more than 50 hours at work, the worst level in Europe.
Eight out of ten fathers complained that their working hours made it much more difficult to share childcare and household tasks.