As workers, the law is often stacked against us; there are plenty of laws that benefit employers, and when there’s a change to employment law, the effect is usually to leave us in a worse position than we were before, as with the introduction of fees for workplace tribunals, a change that meant anyone being victimised by their employer now has to pay a huge sum of money for the privilege.
This is one of the reasons why I thought it was worth writing something about the new flexible working regulations that came into effect this summer, because they’re a rare change that actually gives us new rights as workers. There are guides to what the new regulations mean available from gov.uk and the conciliation service ACAS, but in short, if you’ve been in your job for six months and you’d like to change your hours to ones that’d suit you better, then you can apply in writing and your employer has to either approve your request or show why it fits one of the official criteria for refusing: the burden of additional costs, an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff, an inability to recruit additional staff, a detrimental impact on quality, a detrimental impact on performance, detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand, insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work, or planned structural changes to the business.
Of course, that’s quite a long list, and any reasonably savvy employer with a half-competent HR department will probably be able to come up with a legally convincing excuse for why allowing you to work the hours you want would have a very detrimental effect on their business, but there are still a lot of small, incompetent employers who’re so used to always getting their own way that they might be likely to reply to a request with something along the lines of “no, because I said so”, and so end up finding themselves on the wrong side of employment law.
As with any legal protection, these new rights are only as good as our power to defend them. In well-organised, confident workplaces where denying staff requests unreasonably is likely to cause trouble, employers are likely to allow requests for flexible working; in workplaces where the workforce is weak, divided, passive or scared, any requests that get made are much more likely to be ignored. So, the big question is whether we can use these new regulations to increase the confidence and organisation that’s needed to get make any progress. I think we can: not as some magic bullet that’ll sort everything out, but as a small step in the right direction.
Ultimately, our power as workers comes from our willingness to stand up for each other, so having conversations with our co-workers about the problems we face and things we can do to solve them is a vital part of building that power. And that’s why these new rights are important: they’re something practical we can drop into the conversation that reverses the usual perspective that our bosses and most of official society promote, where the needs of our employers always come first and our needs count for nothing. Next time someone you work with is complaining about the hours they have to work, ask them if they know about the new regulations, and if they’re thinking of putting a request in, and you can start to change the conversation from powerless, passive complaining to actively planning how we can alter the balance of power in the workplace to suit us.
We can’t rely on the law to protect us; the only protection worth having comes from the confidence and solidarity of our fellow workers. But right now, that confidence is at a very low level, so if a new legal right might help to improve that confidence, then it’s worth thinking about how to make the most of it. Making a legal request to alter your working hours is a very small step to take, but for a worker with no experience of collective action or asserting their own needs against their employers’ interests, it could feel like a great leap. And once they’ve taken that first step of standing up for themselves, who’s to say where things might lead?