‘56% of employers say flexible working is good for business’, the Department for Business’ Fourth work-life balance employer survey (2013) declared today. What did the report say about the employees who find they have to work on flexible contracts?
There are clearly downsides to working in such conditions and I have come to learn that there are five rules for survival when working in flexible job-roles. These can be taken as five rules on how to survive as flexibility increases, or they could be taken as five arguments why increasing flexibility in employment markets demands more government intervention.
Before letting you know my rules of flexible employment, I must point out that they are written following my own working experiences. Following my graduation, and after six months of unemployment, in the fallout of the 2008 Financial Crisis, I was desperate to work again. A new international language school opened up in Bristol in the old Custom’s House. The company was originally based in Switzerland and I managed to score a job as one of their first English language teachers in Bristol.
Rule 1: You need to be flexible in your attitude towards unpaid labour. I was handed a weekly rolling contract when I began working for the company. After two years of working for the company this weekly contract did not become a permanent contract, not only for me but also for the other twenty teachers they eventually employed. The teachers were only paid by the hour for the classes they taught. This is the oldest trick in the book for language teacher employers because it means that teachers do not get paid for lesson planning, extra supervision, homework and essay marking, presentation preparations, company meetings, and so on.
Rule 2: As a teacher, you are also expected by be “flexible” and adapt to the company’s direct demands. You could be informed a week in advance that your hours have changed, been dropped, or increased. That means you also have to be flexible about your weekly income and figuring out how to pay bills or save money. The option of taking onboard other work to increase your income is blocked since you have to wait on hand-and-knees to discover how long you will be needed next week – or, if worst comes to worst, if you are not needed at all.
Rule 3: You have to be “flexible” in your considerations about leisure time or free time. Since some lessons start at 9am and others finish at 5pm throughout the week, you find yourself in the school working a fairly typical “nine-to-five” job. It came as a shock to some teachers when it was announced that the school had decided to open until 9pm in the evenings during the summer – suddenly some teachers work working “nine-till-nine” with lessons planned at intervals throughout the day. Although the £13 (ish) per hour payment sounds good initially, by the time you divide your working week by paid hours, you discover you are earning as much as you could working behind a bar or driving a bus – although working much harder in your “professional” teaching role.
Rule 4: Working for a private educational company also means that you have to be entirely flexible and adaptable to the company’s customer’s needs. The average class-size was seventeen students and since many of them have paid a lot of money (especially by their own countries’ standards) to study English in England, then as a teacher your classroom performance has to be impeccable. (Try some simple maths (£13ph ÷ 17) to begin to discover what a killing such companies are making). If you do not perform to their expectations, then – as I witnessed several times within the company – your weekly contract will not be renewed. Meaning: you’ve been fired. Being flexible also means that there is no one you can appeal to if you are unfairly dismissed. Being flexible in this respect also means telling the customer’s exactly what they want to hear (regardless of how well they might not be learning English).
Rule 5: Flexible employment can be so flexible that you should simply forget about any form of fixed employment laws. As I have witnessed working for this Swiss company, some companies do not have to include sick pay, overtime, bonus payments for bank holiday working, redundancy payouts or pensions. These traditional ideas regarding employment contracts were reduced to mythology. It is light of such loose employment contracts that the government can just shrug its shoulders when intervening between employer and employee relations. It is no wonder then that ‘56% of employers say flexible working is good for business’, since it means that they get low paid, hard workers (fearful of loosing their jobs next week).
It seems to be a fairly typical practice for the government to put the onus for the structural change they peruse onto individual agents (everyday people). The report is premised on this idea: ‘employers were asked whether they had received requests over the last 12 months for any of the types of flexible working’. Or: ‘The survey explored issues relating to the patterns that employees work, in particular the use of zero hour contracts, long hours working and on-call working’. While it is probably very likely that some people would like more flexibility in employment, to put the onus on the employees or the public, for this demand for flexibility is bizarre. It overlooks the contracts handed out by companies as I had discussed above. And, what about this idea: that some employees have no choice but to work within a country that is becoming increasingly flexible in its employment laws? A document such as this does noting more that to solidify “flexible” employment contracts. This primarily serves the employers, the companies, who can continue to employ people on a very fluid, wishy-washy contracts. Employees become even more disposable as companies adapt to market forces.
I can say what I want now because I am no longer under the threat of not having my weekly contract renewed. (I do worry sometimes about being able to get a good reference?).