Working mothers forced to quit over flexible arrangements as bosses ‘reject requests too easily’

Exclusive: New research shows vast majority want flexible working as union warns workers are pushed into cutting hours or taking unpaid leave instead

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Saturday 23 April 2022 07:43 BST
A survey of almost 13,000 working mothers in the UK found half are denied flexibility
A survey of almost 13,000 working mothers in the UK found half are denied flexibility (PA)

Nine in ten people think bosses are able to reject flexible working requests too easily, according to new research.

A TUC report, shared exclusively with The Independent, discovered there is a significant amount of support for flexible working among parents and disabled workers.

Researchers analysed the answers of almost 6,000 workers who responded to the government’s consultation on flexible working.

The trade union warned workers are pushed into cutting hours, taking unpaid leave or quitting their jobs if they are not allowed to access flexible working.

Three quarters of those polled would feel uneasy and awkward inquiring about flexible working at a job interview.

One mother said: “Flexible working means we have a shot at making all of our responsibilities work, otherwise, I would have to quit my job and focus on caring for everyone.”

Another explained flexible working enables her to juggle continuing to work with bringing up her child.

“I can continue to contribute to the economy, pay taxes and earn at the level I achieved prior to having a child,” the mother added.

Another mother said: “I am a teacher with a two-year-old and a husband who works shifts. We have no family nearby to support us. My part-time request was refused twice, so I've handed in my notice with no job lined up.”

Almost all of those who responded lent their backing to the TUC’s demand for the government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s consultation to actually lead to concrete legislative change providing more flexible working conditions.

The research comes after it recently emerged the UK government would be delaying proposals to roll out flexible working, with the delays provoking criticism among trade unions and the Labour Party.

The employment bill, which includes such measures, was unveiled in the Queen’s Speech three years ago, but government officials told The Financial Times the legislation is not expected to be included in the forthcoming Speech this May.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, told The Independent the government “will be turning its back on working women” if it chooses to abandon the employment bill.

“Attitudes to all types of flexible working changed significantly in the pandemic. Staff and managers alike have seen first-hand over the last two years the benefits flexible working can bring,” Ms O’Grady added.

“Flexible working is essential for people to be able to support their families and contribute to the economy. It is how we keep mums in work and close the gender pay gap. It gives dads more time with their kids. And it helps disabled workers, older workers and carers stay in their jobs.”

She warned the present system is “broken” as she noted “employers still have free rein” to reject “any and all requests for flexible working”.

Ms O’Grady added: “And workers are too scared to ask for flexible working at job interviews for fear of being discriminated against.

“It's time for a step-change in flexible working. Almost 6,000 people sent their views to the government – this is their opportunity to listen and act.

“This consultation must result in a change in the law, so that all jobs are advertised with flexible options clearly stated, and all workers have the legal right to work flexibly from their first day in a job.”

The UK’s present law stipulates all employees are able to request flexible working after they have been in their role for 26 weeks, with workplaces allowed to take three months to get back to the employee and the worker given no right to appeal the decision.

Employers are able to make a request for flexible working once a year, but the consultation which the government held examined changing the law so employers can ask for more adaptable working on the first day of starting a job. The TUC is calling for workers to be allowed to apply for flexible working as many times as they want and also be given the right to appeal a decision.

“Without flexible working, I am required to put my job first and my health second,” a disabled worker said.

Another added: “Flexible working is important to me as a disabled person because I don’t have to choose between managing my health and pursuing my career.”

Meanwhile, a female employer said she would be too scared to ask about flexible working at a job interview. “I would be worried about being categorised as a troublemaker, or someone who was unreliable,” she said. “I’d be concerned the job would go to someone without kids or a man.”

A study, carried out by the TUC and a campaign group called Mother Pukka, recently found half of working mothers in the UK are denied the flexibility they request.

The survey, which polled almost 13,000 mothers, also found mothers who do choose to work flexibly are forced to endure discrimination, while one in two either had a flexible working request rejected or only partially granted by their current workplace.

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