Worker flexibility is a way of exploiting the childless

Those without children are pressed not to take holidays at peak times, to be 'on call' and to 'fill in'
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The Independent Online

There are probably few people in employee-friendly workplaces without some reason to be grateful. A death in the family, a house fire, a husband's hospital visit have all occasioned unscheduled absences on my part over the years and all were gracefully agreed. Whenever people start talking about expanding the legal right to flexible working, however, I glimpse a less appealing reality.

There are probably few people in employee-friendly workplaces without some reason to be grateful. A death in the family, a house fire, a husband's hospital visit have all occasioned unscheduled absences on my part over the years and all were gracefully agreed. Whenever people start talking about expanding the legal right to flexible working, however, I glimpse a less appealing reality.

One year on from the Government's flexible working initiative, which gave parents of young children the right to request reduced or altered hours, we have been treated to the self-congratulatory outpourings of Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, about its tremendous success. As if this was not enough, we then had the ex-Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, solemnly preening himself on his own lifestyle choice to spend more time with his family (but not so much that he loses his pay or status as an MP or passes his days child-minding).

There is just one small problem here and it may seem churlish of me to mention it. But before long, the only people actually working in offices, answering the phones, co-ordinating all these out-workers and picking up after disasters will be the bachelors, "confirmed" and others, of both sexes and the married, but childless, like me. Everyone else, if they come into the office at all, will be there extra early or extra late, perhaps even at night, condensing their job to its essentials and flaunting their super-efficiency. Increasingly, there are two sorts of workplace bravado: the traditional bitter-endism of the long-hours brigade and the "come in, get it done, why hang around?" dispatch of new-thinking mothers and fathers.

Now, there are jobs that can be done to everyone's satisfaction in or out of the office and at any time of day or year. If we were all more imaginative and businesses were structured differently, much more flexible working might be possible for many more people. The US retail giant Wal-Mart is often praised in this country for offering varied work patterns, including shifts that match school hours and holidays.

In many, perhaps most, workplaces, however, those without children find themselves increasingly pressed not to take their holidays at peak times (not that some of us need any encouragement), to be "on call" on days off and to "fill in", with no extra pay or time off, for those who have shortened their hours. You can already sense a backlash. The childless are becoming just that little bit less willing to fill all the gaps left by the sports days and carol services. They are also laying their own claims: to study leave, sabbaticals, time off to travel, with the right to their job back at the end.

Perhaps recognising this, Ms Hewitt has mooted the extension of flexible working rights to others, in the first instance to those caring for ill or elderly relatives. Few of us would have difficulty with that - although Ms Hewitt's family-values zeal may not be entirely without self-interest. She will be well aware that the number of voters with elderly dependants is rising. Moreover, care in the family, whether for children or ageing parents, saves the Exchequer a tidy sum of money, especially if some of the actual cost in time can somehow be passed on to employers as well.

I do not subscribe to the absolutism that says that having children is a choice like any other and no concessions should be given. I do think, however, that parents who opt for shorter hours should not complain about the smaller pay packets and narrower promotion prospects that often - and should - go with them. This is a real choice, and they have chosen. Nor is it true any more that "their" children will fund "our" pensions and we should be grateful. In this age of personal pensions, we fund our own retirement, so let us stop this inter-generational back-biting before it starts.

The real folly is that there will soon be so much chipping away at working hours that everyone will have a different privilege to draw on. Such a solution might be fairer than special deals just for parents, but it is a clumsy and expensive way of dealing with the root problem. This is not that a great many non-MPs are just as keen as Mr Milburn to spend more time with their families, but that working hours in this country are excessively long.

When was the last time we heard calls for an across-the-board 38- or even 40-hour week? The norm now is 48 hours, without overtime pay. By dangling the prospect of ever more "flexibility", the Government can divert us from hankering after a French-style 35-hour week, while boasting about how internationally competitive we are. Slash the working week, then let us see how much "flexible working" Britain's workers really want.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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