Nearly one million workers in the UK are on zero-hour contracts. A further five million are nominally self-employed. In modern Britain, flexibility is often presented as a way of reconciling pressures between work and family life.
Such employment is less novel than is often assumed. In this Trade Union Forum seminar, Professor Noel Whiteside, Professor of Comparative Public Policy at the University of Warwick, will approach the subject from the historical perspective. What is now "flexibility" was once "casual labour", and social enquiry revealed the consequences of casual labour over a hundred years ago. The nineteenth century founding fathers of social statistics (Charles Booth, Seehbohm Rowntree, A.L. Bowley among others) argued that, to safeguard Britain’s commercial and imperial pre-eminence, casual employment must be abolished. Theresa May has recently set up a twenty-first century equivalent in the Taylor Review. It is likely to reach similar conclusions. She asks why the social reforms of the early twentieth century designed to tackle the problems of casual labour ultimately failed, and what mistakes we are at risk of making again.
Sally Brett, Head of Equality, Inclusion and Culture at the British Medical Association, will pose the question: what kind of flexibility do workers want and need? The ability to vary working hours from the standard, full-time pattern or to secure time off for family reasons is important to working parents and carers, particularly women, who are still the primary care-givers in most families. But it’s not just flexibility that matters. Control over working hours, adequate notice of working hours and predictability and certainty in working hours are important too. Employers who respect employees’ life and responsibilities outside of work are likely to benefit from higher engagement, lower sickness absence and lower turnover.
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