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Low-paid parents struggling to balance work and childcare

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said employers need to better support working parents

More than two in five (42%) low-paid young parents feel penalised when asking for flexibility at work, according to research from the TUC.

The study polled more than 1,000 parents working in low-paid sectors like retail, hospitality and social care, who had at least one child aged between one and 16, were themselves aged between 20 and 35, and had household earnings of less than £28,000. It is part of the TUC’s new campaign for better jobs for working parents.

Half (47%) of those surveyed reported struggling to manage work and childcare. Many of those polled said they struggled because their employer changes shifts on a whim. One in four (26%) said they had their shifts changed at short notice, and one in five (19%) had been given their rota less than a week in advance, making planning childcare difficult.

However, more than half (58%) said that they did not know what employment rights they are entitled to. Nearly two in three (63%) were not aware of their right to unpaid parental leave. As a result half (49%) were not using one or more of their legal rights to time off. This meant they ended up taking sick leave or holiday to cover childcare.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said employers need to be more considerate of parents. “Too many workplaces expect mums and dads to forget all about their kids as soon as they walk through the door,” she said. “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. And it is shocking that some mums and dads are being stopped from taking their children to hospital when they are sick."

O’Grady added that there are steps employers can take to better support staff. “All workers should be given notice of their shifts at least one month in advance,” she said. “Everyone at work should get the same parents’ rights from day one – and everyone should be given written information about these rights.”

Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson said young low-paid parents are being short-changed. “Younger parents are more likely to share care than the generations before them, and value flexibility at work highly,” she said. “But the UK labour market is short-changing them. All too often a low-paid, insecure job where the flexibility is all one way is their only option if they want to work and care for their child.”

From 1 September 2017 the government will increase free childcare to 30 hours a week for eligible working parents of children aged three and four, who have not yet started their reception year at school.

“30 hours' free childcare sounds great – but how will it work when the majority of the jobs parents need are advertised at 35 hours per week?" Jackson commented in relation to this. "It’s another example of a government policy designed to help families work and manage their finances that won’t work as intended without more decent quality part-time and flexible jobs.

“The government says it wants to expand workers’ rights post-Brexit,” added Jackson. “If it’s serious it should level the playing field on parental rights between those classified as workers, employees and self-employed – giving all working parents access to the family-friendly rights that help balance work and caring for their family.

“But better rights are meaningless if parents feel they can’t use them – either because they’re terrified of being seen as less committed, or of getting ‘special treatment’, or both. To kick-start the change in workplace culture needed we must move to a situation where all jobs are designed and advertised flexibly by default.”