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Wrong kind of flexibility

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A New report from the Working Families free legal advice service helpline highlights how zero-hour contracts and casualised employment are damaging family life. The onset of recession in 2008 and its aftermath has heralded rapid growth in the use of zero-hours contracts and other “casualised” forms of employment by employers in the care, retail and hospitality sectors.

Working Families Chief Executive, Sarah Jackson: “If there is one stand-out feature of our work this year, it is that flexible working is simply a pipe dream for all too many of the parents and carers who contact the Helpline team despite the extension to all employees of the existing right to request flexible working in June 2014. For these workers on zero-hour contracts and in “casualised” roles they have significant variations in income, they find it hard to arrange (and retain) childcare and they find their in-work benefits disrupted. And, for too many of our callers, a refusal to work shorter, longer or simply different hours can easily lead to there being no work at all. “

The introduction of upfront tribunal fees in July 2013, which are simply unaffordable to many, has made it harder than it’s ever been to challenge any unlawful action on the part of the employer. Karen, a young single mother of a disabled child, had been working on a zero-hours contract when her employer suddenly changed her shifts to include night work. When Karen indicated that she could not work night shifts as she could not find affordable childcare, her employer insisted she work the night shifts or “find another job”.

Ahmed, a security guard, called the helpline after his employer informed him of a substantial change in his working hours and gave him four weeks to agree to the changes or “be dismissed”. Ahmed did not have the necessary two years’ service to be able to bring a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, and the helpline team advised him that a claim for direct sex discrimination could be hard to prove, as there weren’t any women employees performing the same role. Denise, employed on a zero-hours contract, had had her working hours substantially cut since she had taken time off for a pregnancy-related illness. When she had challenged her employer, pointing out that several new staff had been taken on, she was told “we need people we can rely on”. The helpline team advised Denise that her treatment amounted to pregnancy discrimination, but Denise said there was no way she and her partner could afford to pay the fees of £1,200 to pursue a tribunal claim.

In the months immediately following the introduction of fees, claims for unfair dismissal fell by 65 per cent, and claims for sex or pregnancy discrimination fell by 80 per cent. In the words of one senior employment judge, it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that access to justice has been curtailed”.[i] We believe the government formed after 7 May 2015 must act decisively to restore access to the employment tribunal system by scrapping the fees for claimants introduced in July 2013.  

[i] Shona Simon, President Employment Tribunals (Scotland), in Senior President of Tribunals’ Annual Report, HMCTS, February 2015.

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