EC: FLEXIBLE WORKING GIVES EC LEGISLATORS A BAD HEADACHE. - Atypical work patterns are, typically, different throughout EC countries.

by Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Atypical work patterns are, typically, different throughout EC countries.

Whatever happened to the standard working day and the still deeply entrenched notion that a living is something people earn from Monday to Friday between 7am and 5pm? The latest research from the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) shows that this idea is almost as defunct as the Michaelmas hiring fair. In Britain, say the Cranfield-based authors, and to a large extent in the rest of the EC, such rigid and permanent employment contracts are already a thing of the past. Flexibility is now the name of the game, and a majority of those still lucky enough to have jobs are now working part-time, or from home, or on some variety of temporary, casual or at best short-term renegotiable arrangement.

In many ways, of course, the development of these 'atypical' work patterns can be painted as highly desirable. For employers it offers effective strategies for cutting costs and eliminating the inefficiencies that inevitably arise from the fact that demand for both goods and services these days rarely comes in neat, seven-and-a-half-hour, weekday packages. It can also provide the opportunity to recruit staff with specific, and possibly scarce skills, who would either not be available full-time or whom it would not be economic to employ on a full-time basis. For the employee, too, flexible working can offer substantial advantages. Work can more easily be tailored to fit in with other commitments, whether these involve looking after children and sick relatives, or merely improving one's golf. And in many specialist areas, freelancing is better remunerated - and possibly more satisfying - than commuting to some distant office desk.

There are, however, as the IPM study shows, quite a lot of disadvantages. Fragmented work patterns are usually difficult to manage, and it is hard to ensure the highest level of commitment from people who, by definition, are in only a semi-detached relationship with the organisation that pays them. And the employees, in turn, can easily find themselves deprived in a number of ways. Even if they manage to achieve a reasonable level of financial reward they are likely to miss out on pensions, paid holidays, access to National Insurance benefits, trade union representation, or opportunities for training and promotion.

Brussels finds itself in two minds about the social and economic implications of all this. On the one hand, it is very keen on flexible working as a contribution to Europe's global competitiveness. But on the other, it is conscious, both of its duty to ensure that the Community benefits people as well as business and that members' varying attitudes to the interests of their part-timers do not constitute yet another threat to the famous 'level playing field'.

In June this year they did make one significant move towards uniformity of protection. A new Directive on Written Proof of Employee Relationship lays down that anyone working more than eight hours a week must get a written statement of the relevant job conditions within eight weeks of the date they start. But a much broader pair of draft directives on atypical work have been stalled in the Commission's in-tray for more than three years now, as member governments disagree on how far part-time and temporary workers should enjoy, on a pro rata basis, the same rights as their more permanent colleagues. As usual the argument polarises between those who want safeguards for the vulnerable and the others, who resent any interference with the workings of a 'free' labour market.

The debate is further complicated by national differences in the way these atypical labour practices have evolved. Almost one worker in three in the Netherlands, for example, is now a part-timer, whereas in Spain and Greece the figure is only one in 25. With temporary staff, the North-South divide works the other way round: such arrangements are on average three times more common among the Mediterranean countries.

The most useful (but also most radical and most costly) reform in this area would undoubtedly be improvement in childcare arrangements. But even if that could be agreed, there would still be some odd national differences to be ironed out. Holland, for instance, goes in for a 'broken' school day, with children routinely sent home for lunch. But even France, with its highly-developed system of state-financed nurseries, has its idiosyncrasies. Far more women there enjoy more or less permanent employment, but the majority put in only a 30-hour week. The reason is that Wednesday, by long tradition, is a school holiday there, so all the nation's mothers have to be at home that day.

Logic determines that there can be nothing so atypical as the atypical. But it is a truism calculated to drive the tidy-minded legislator wild.

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