Wales should lead the way on flexible employment to help mothers return to work

A mother and child

Sarah Rees

Unaffordable childcare and a lack of flexible employment are the bricks and mortar of the wall that stop mothers returning to work.

Why should we care about this? Because equalising economic participation would grow our economy by more than 10% in the next decade, and at present Wales lags behind the rest of the UK when it comes to flexible work.

Earlier this year the Senedd ELGC Committee undertook an enquiry into maternity discrimination, focusing on parenting and employment.

There were eyebrows raised as to what Welsh Government could do when matters like employment law are not devolved. As I said to the Committee in my own evidence, employment rights are the tip of the iceberg.

When the average wage for a 30 something in Wales is, according to the Office of National Statistics, just £500 a week (not taking into account the gender pay gap or part-time salaries), it’s no surprise parents struggle to afford childcare.

With a weekly rate of £250 per child, how could anyone give up 50% of their salary to childcare and break even?

Many make the tough choice to quit as the numbers simply don’t add up.

A care conundrum

The Welsh Government are currently undertaking a lengthy trial of their flagship “30 hours of free childcare”, which has been wrought with problems and complaints from parents.

The focus on providing support for 3-4 year olds has parents flummoxed, as they really need support with childcare when their child is 9 months old, at the point when paid maternity/ parental leave comes to an end.

I’m intrigued as to why they are thundering on with the policy as it stands, given that their own 2015 report found that increasing childcare to 30 hours would make little difference to getting more women back to work or reducing poverty.

So why are they doing it? What purpose does the policy serve?

Why aren’t they listening to parents who are forced to remove themselves from the workforce because £50 a day childcare for a 1 year old is simply not viable?

Flex appeal

The other half of the puzzle is employment; as I said to the committee “attempting to find a decent part-time job is a full-time job in itself”.

The average weekly wage for part-time workers is £394, the gender pay gap leaps to 30%, and as women make up 75% of part-time workers we know this is a gendered issue.

Why do we expect mothers to take on part-time work that is often low paid, undervalued and on zero hours’ contracts simply because they chose to procreate?

Women have babies, not lobotomies and the workplace needs to catch up with society and technology if it wants to thrive.

I believe that we need to be bold, and make all work flexible by default. If mothers had the opportunity to apply for the majority of jobs on the market, rather than a minority that are often lower paid, we would see a revolution in employment.

Why are we so fearful of changing the clunking system of work born in the industrial revolution?

We have the technology to work from any place and be accessible at any time, and yet we still base our employment around a model of presenteeism that does nothing to benefit either employee or employer.

Precedent

As a member of the Women’s Equality Party, I want to highlight our slogan equality is better for everyone as it’s particularly relevant when it comes to flexible working.

It’s time we were all able to work around our lives rather than work being our lives. Not just for parents; for everyone.

I’m pleased to see that flexible working is at the core of the recommendations in the report. Although I hope the focus is on all businesses not just waving a stick at the public sector.

Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka, was forced to leave her job as her request for flexibility was declined as it would set a precedent for others.

I say to Welsh Government, let us set the precedent, let’s give Wales #flexappeal and lead the way to a country of equality, as it really is better for everyone.

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