In workplaces across the UK, work is changing. Email and mobile phones mean that work is no longer consigned to the office, but can be done at home or during your daily commute. However, more often than not flexibility is only introduced when it serves the interests of the employer but not when it benefits the employee.
This inflexibility and on-call culture is felt acutely by women, who despite advances in gender equality, still bear the dual burden of work and care. Looking after small children, caring for elderly relatives and answering work emails is an all too familiar, not to mention exhausting, routine for many women.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We should have an economy that works for us, not against us. Women and carers should be able to have flexibility over working hours to fit around their family responsibilities, more men need to be encouraged to take on caring roles.
The need for an expansion of flexible working is obvious. According to a recent survey by the ONS, around 46% of women who look after both young children and elderly or disabled relatives, feel unable to work as much as they would like or even work at all. It is estimated that maternity leave discrimination means 54,000 women lose their jobs each year.
Despite advances in gender equality, men continue to hold the majority of the most senior and highly paid jobs, reinforcing the gender pay gap, while women are either shut out of the workplace or have to take part-time jobs below their skill level. This was shown to be widespread by a PricewaterhouseCooper report that three in five women return from career breaks to lower-skilled or lower paid roles.
Labour recognises that the best way to accommodate complicated lives and to balance work and care is to provide flexible working opportunities for all. That is why I am proud to announce our new policy today, at Labour Party Women’s Conference, which will ensure the next Labour Government shifts the balance of power.
Labour will guarantee new rights for all workers to have flexibility over their own working hours from day one of employment. Employers will be required to create roles with the presumption that they can be done flexibly, except where they are able to prove that a job must be exempt.
The policy will help reduce the gender pay gap and gender segregation in the workplace, by increasing employment and promotion opportunities for women. It will also bring wider benefits such as reducing commuter congestion and reducing businesses’ office overheads.
Women will benefit the most from this improved choice and flexibility, but the right to flexible working will be open to all employees so it will benefit other groups too – including those studying part-time and older workers.
It will also bring great advantages to the economy – studies have predicted that expanding flexible working will boost the UK economy to the tune of £148billion. It will assist employers to retain staff and give them access to a wider pool of talent. It’s a win for everyone – for employees, for business and for the economy.
No one will be shut out of the workplace. By improving choice and flexibility for employee Labour will help to unlock employment and progression opportunities for all and make Britain a fairer, more equal society.
Dawn Butler is the shadow women and equalities secretary, and Labour MP for Brent Central