Employment: Part-timers climb without safety net: A growing army of flexible workers lacks protection

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The Independent Online
In Britain nearly one worker in four is part-time, according to the Department of Employment, and more than 1.5 million such jobs have been created since 1980.

The majority of these new jobs are for regular employees, but the legal rights of the part- timer remain limited compared to those of full-time colleagues.

Part-time working will become more prevalent if, as expected, the UK labour force grows by 674,000 between 1990 and 2001, women accounting for more than 97 per cent of that growth.

Charlie Monkcom, co-ordinator with New Ways to Work, a London-based group that advises on more flexible ways of working, said: 'The prime reason for employers' great flexibility with regard to working arrangements has been the increasing role of women in the workforce.

'The recession has had a more immediate impact. It has forced employers to review and reorganise their businesses in the face of falling profits. This in turn has encouraged them to look at working conditions with increased flexibility.'

Popular new working arrangements also include job- sharing, working from home, term-time working and temporary contracts linked to the completion of a particular project. Some employers have agreed to an annualised hours arrangement, whereby an employee agrees the total hours to be worked per year rather than per week.

Many companies, including Boots, J Sainsbury, ICL and Tesco, have become involved in flexible working practices.

According to a guide issued by the Department of Employment: 'Flexible working arrangements can make a business more attractive to potential employees. It may help an employer meet production deadlines or provide a better service to customers. It may reduce a business's staff turnover and overheads.'

The guide also hints at advantages for those not working at present: 'If you don't have a job now, flexible opportunities can help you to find one more quickly. You are likely to be better off in part-time work than on benefits.'

Despite this encouragement, the statutory protection available to part-time workers is limited. They are entitled to: equal pay for work of equal value; time off for ante-natal care; and to protection from discrimination on grounds of sex or race.

However, protection against unfair dismissal, the right to redundancy pay and to reinstatement after childbirth, are available only after two years, and only to employees who work at least 16 hours a week. These rights are extended to part-time workers after five years if they work between eight and sixteen hours a week. Those who work fewer than eight hours are not eligible for protection regardless of length of service.

Many full-time employees also enjoy enhanced benefits under their contracts of employment which do not by law have to be extended on a pro rata basis to part-time employees.

The European Commission has proposed three directives to regulate the employment of part-time and temporary employees. These include giving part-time workers a pro rata right to holiday, seniority and dismissal allowances. They would also have a right to pro rata treatment in respect of pensions and sick pay, as well as access to any social services and training provided by the employer.

It is also proposed that part- time employees who work at least eight hours a week should come within the National Insurance scheme, regardless of how little they earn.

The Department of Employment argues that implementation of the directives would imperil tens of thousands of jobs. The department points out that at present employees are, in general, free to agree on the terms and conditions they desire without outside interference.

With unemployment rising for the 27th month in succession, employers look likely to be in a stronger negotiating position than their part-time workers for some time to come.

(Photograph omitted)