There’s nothing tougher than being a young working parent in the UK today.
Young people are overrepresented in the lowest paid sectors such as retail, hospitality, and private sector health and social care. It may come as no surprise that jobs in these sectors are rife with insecurity — think zero hours contracts and agency work.
Any so-called ‘flexibility’ on the job is often only flexibility for the boss — the ‘flexibility’ to cancel your shift without a moment’s notice, or the ‘flexibility’ to give you your rota less than a week in advance.
Becky Thompson, 29, is one such young worker who must struggle to earn a living while caring for her three girls, who are 10, 4 and 9 months old.
She works 25 hours a week for a large retailer. Recently, her daughter became very ill on a Saturday night with a high temperature.
“We had to take her to our local A&E,” she explained. “The doctors confirmed that she had tonsillitis and ear infections in both ears. So I had to miss work on the Sunday, which happened to be Father’s Day.
“When I went back in on the Monday, my manager said that she thought I was lying and I had just wanted to have Father’s Day off. So I had to take in a letter from the doctors to prove I was telling the truth.
Becky says that her bosses simply don’t care about her family responsibilities, and she often feels singled out.
“I feel like I get pinpointed for not being able to do any overtime or weekends,” she says. “So people say ‘well Becky never works weekends’. There are comments and it can be quite bitchy. But I can’t work weekends – my eldest and middle daughter are at school so weekends are our only family time.”
Becky is not alone — she is among the millions of young working parents whose bosses don’t allow them the flexibility for childcare that is their right.
A new wide-ranging study by the TUC published today (September 1) of young, low-paid working parents, aged between 20 and 35, found that nearly half are struggling to manage work and childcare.
More than two in five young parents said they felt they were punished for asking for flexibility to care for their children — they reported being given fewer hours, worse shifts or even losing their jobs.
A quarter of the more than 1,000 low-paid parents that the TUC spoke to said that despite their bosses knowing their struggles juggling childcare and work, they nonetheless have had their shifts changed on short notice. Another one in five say that they were given their rota less than a week in advance.
While some bosses want you to think that they’re doing you a big favour for allowing you to, say, take your child to hospital during work, many employees don’t realise that parental flexibility is a legal right.
In the TUC survey, 63 per cent weren’t aware of their right to unpaid parental leave, and almost as many — 58 per cent — did not know what rights they were entitled to at work.
As a result, young parents are taking sick leave or holiday leave to care for a sick child.
Unite agrees with the TUC that the only way to change the work/life balance problems plaguing low-paid parents is through a change in the law.
While employees are entitled to unpaid parental leave, the right to ask for flexible work and other family entitlements, those who are classified as ‘workers’ — those, for example, on insecure contracts — do not have these same rights.
What’s more, many family workplace rights are unpaid — such as parental leave — rendering such rights essentially meaningless for those on low pay.
After all, if you’re barely able to scrape by and provide for your family on the meagre hours and pay you have, what good is it having the ‘right’ to take time off for work, unpaid, to care for your children?
That’s why the TUC and Unite believe there should be a floor on all workers’ rights, whatever their employment status, from day one. They also argue for a wholesale ban of precarious work arrangements such as zero hour contracts, as well as paid parental leave so parents on low-pay don’t have to decide between providing for their children financially or being there for their children when they’re ill.
In the meantime, young parents are urged to join a trade union so that they know their rights, and have the support of the union to exercise those rights.
“Too many workplaces expect mums and dads to forget all about their kids as soon as they walk through the door,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “But it’s a nightmare to plan childcare when your boss changes your shifts at the drop of a hat, and you never work the same weekly hours twice.
“Many parents fear losing shifts, taking unpaid leave or being viewed badly at work if they need time off to look after their kids,” she added. “And it is shocking that some mums and dads are being stopped from taking their children to hospital when they are sick.
“All workers should be given notice of their shifts at least one month in advance. Everyone at work should get the same parents’ rights from day one – and everyone should be given written information about these rights.
“My advice to working dads and mums is this: join a union today. Your union will make sure you get your legal rights to time off to look after your kids.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed that government action is needed now.
“The reality for many workers is a far cry from the warm words of government ministers on work life balance who seem detached from the reality of working life in modern Britain,” he said. “Not knowing from one week to the next when they will be working, the insecurity of temporary agency working and zero hour contracts is robbing people of a decent life outside of work.
“We’ve seen exploitative work places, such as Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook, lead to temporary agency workers being unable to care for their sick kids and forced to send them to school ill for fear of losing hours or their job,” Turner added.
“We have also seen workers literally work until they drop with chronic health conditions. The government needs to wake up and realise the only way it can meaningfully ensure a decent work life balance for workers and stop exploitative bosses is by legislating.”