Flexibility at work costs staff dear

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

Britain's increasingly flexible working methods provide employers with considerable advantages but yield few benefits for their employees, according to research published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Part-time and temporary working offers organisations a means of cutting labour costs, responding to business fluctuations and extending operating hours, but the predominantly female staff are low paid and have few chances of promotion.

The study, conducted by Industrial Relations Services among 30 companies in retail and finance, also found that such workers were offered little training and were vulnerable to employers' demands to change working hours which could come into conflict with childcare and other domestic responsibilities.

It was found that while many female part-timers valued their working arrangements because it fitted commitments at home, employers introduced flexibility for commercial rather than equal opportunities reasons.

Summarising the findings of three reports, the commission conceded that equal opportunities policies were useful, but had yielded a limited impact. The problem was that pay and conditions were outside the scope of such policies.

Kamlesh Bahl, the commission chairwoman, said flexible working ought to be good news for women trying to combine work and family duties, but she recognised it also had its downside. She said the commission was talking to employers and unions to seek out examples of good practice.

Ms Bahl fought shy of calling for fresh legislation to protect part- timers, arguing that the commission was still investigating the issue.

The commission had a reputation for challenging existing laws, but it was also important to promote the practices of good employers wherever they were found. Evidence showed that employers did not save money by paying low wages and suffering a high labour turnover as a consequence.

She warned that full-time permanent employment was disappearing. "Flexibility is here to stay." Research sponsored by the commission confirmed that the bulk of employees undertaking "flexible" jobs were women. Two out of five women of working age were in part-time jobs, compared with less than one in 10 men.

While flexible working had improved the opportunities for women to work, the recent restructuring of organisations by "downsizing" or by "delayering" had meant that more work was being done by fewer staff.

It had been found that although the number of women in new management jobs had increased, the status of the posts had not been as high as those held previously by men.

The studies found that black women were "invisible", especially in supervisory and management jobs.