Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


2 MARCH 2005

  Q80 Sir Robert Smith: You have covered quite a lot of the issues in the print industry already. I wanted to come back to one bit in your written evidence, not so much that there was a differential in treatment problem but that they might be forced out of the industry. Who does the forcing?

  Ms Dawson: It is, in effect, a combination of factors. May I illustrate this with an example? One skilled area in printing is one that has recently been bypassed by technology. There used to be something called plate-making. That was a skilled occupation and it was a male occupation. One woman did get into that occupation but she was one women among 13 men. For two years she was systematically harassed in that job. It was two years before she told me about it. Then we were in a damage limitation situation, which is never good. The problem is that the men themselves are responsible for this and we are trying to challenge those attitudes. One of the things we have pushed for really heavily over the last ten years is what we call our dignity at work policy and model agreement. We have tried to get employers to take this up. Employers do not really want to take up these issues because they are tricky and embarrassing and they tend to be written off as personality clashes. Women are told they have to be tough enough to do the job. What we want, and we need to think about ways we can all work together on this, is to create a situation whereby anyone who is being victimised can come forward early. If we can get this early, we can deal with it. We need to get over this reluctance of employers to nip it in the bud. There is lots of information that can be used in terms of a business case. When you look at the cost to a company if this happens, it is not just the cost of a lawyer; it is not even just the cost of preparing for the case. There are knock-on claims that come along afterwards and there is bad morale in the company afterwards and finger-pointing and that all affects productivity. Until a company is hit by that, it has no idea of just how bad the situation is and how long it is going to carry on. We keep trying to push this message and to say it is just not worth taking the risk of this happening in the company. We are trying to take that approach. We accept that there is a reluctance by our members and a reluctance to create the right atmosphere at work.

  Q81 Sir Robert Smith: You mentioned that when more women start to get into a certain skill, then the employer tries to differentiate the man's job. Is that because of the way the market is working and the traditional links they want between the employer being male and the employee being male? What is the incentive for the employer to try to that?

  Ms Dawson: There is one obvious incentive, which is of course to save money. They can pay the women less.

  Q82 Sir Robert Smith: They can pay the women less but why are they trying to assist the men to carry on being paid more?

  Ms Dawson: Traditionally the men were organised to have the strength to hold on to those occupations. Whilst the GPMU became weaker as a union, and that was one of the reasons for the merger, there are still areas with skilled men. Those pockets are still strongly organised enough to hold on to those jobs. They are obviously going to fight any effects of feminisation in those skills.

  Q83 Sir Robert Smith: This is so that the employer gets an easy life?

  Ms Dawson: It is an easier life. Although it is changing, a lot of employers come from a shop floor background, so they share the attitudes of the people with whom they are dealing.

  Q84 Richard Burden: You referred to flexibility a little earlier on and the need to make employees, both men and women, more aware of their existing rights to request replacement working, part-time working and so on. That is also an area where there seems to be a barrier to women getting into higher paid occupations and fitting working hours around domestic commitments and vice versa. Do you think the current law is adequate on that? Do you think there is a case for a mandatory right, not just to request flexible working or part-time working, but to be able to get flexible and part-time work?

  Ms Dawson: I think that is an important part of the equation. In our evidence we talk about improvements in the legislation. We said that there needs to be this ability to challenge the reasons that employers give now for allowing flexibility. In the guidance, there are certain examples of the kinds of things that would count for not giving flexibility. You find those phrases being used time and time again when members come to me and say, "This is why the employer is saying he cannot do it". We need to be able to look more deeply. There are some really entrenched attitudes about what jobs are suitable for reduced hours working. I have mentioned that men are having bigger problems now. The most recent case I have is of a man who has become responsible for his children because his wife is an alcoholic. He works on a machine on shifts and he is highly skilled. He wants to take advantage of flexibility. The first response he got from the employer was "these regulations were not intended for production jobs; they were really only intended for office-type jobs". There is this view that this is only suitable for certain types of work. Shifts are a big problem in terms of flexibility because they want these shift patterns and they want those patterns to sit there. If you try to get a situation where somebody might need to work across shifts, it becomes difficult trying to work it out. That is not to say it cannot be done. Whenever you change something, there is always this attitude: we have always done it this way. It is really difficult to break down that attitude in traditional manufacturing centres.

  Q85 Richard Burden: In terms of strengthening the law on that, if I read you right, it is not so much that you are saying that there should be a mandatory right to get part-time work or flexible working but there should be a more robust role for the law in being able to question an unreasonable refusal by the employer?

  Ms Dawson: Yes.

  Q86 Richard Burden: The way the law around this area tends to work at the moment is that there is a formulation that says something like: requests like this will not be unreasonably refused. To strengthen that in the way you want, would you want to see the law moving in terms of trying to define the kinds of things that would be unreasonable refusal? Would you see some kind of code of practice having a role, or is it something to do with the enforcement mechanism, not so much that you could codify what would constitute an unreasonable refusal but there would be a greater ability by the woman or the man to be able to seek redress elsewhere and get it treated a bit more seriously?

  Ms Dawson: It would be really hard to codify it. It is like the lists of what constitutes gross misconduct; you can never come up with a complete list. We would accept that each situation needs to be dealt with on its merits. We want the enforcement mechanism that you talked about. We want to be able to challenge where we feel an employer is really making an excuse about taking up the regulations. We think we can come up with suggestions that would be workable and allow the flexibility. At the moment, it just does not seem as though we can do that very well. It keeps coming back to "we cannot do it for operational reasons". We need to get beyond "operational reasons" to challenge those attitudes. People would start to see that this flexibility could operate. At the moment, the default way of thinking is that it cannot happen because we have always done it this way, so how could we possibly do it another way? We do need to get beyond the stereotyped attitudes, the ingrained attitudes about it being done only one way.

  Q87 Richard Burden: Have you thought about how you would like to see the enforcement mechanism improved? Would it be access to a tribunal or what?

  Ms Dawson: At the moment, the regulations are based more on the procedural aspects of challenges rather than the content of the procedure. You can challenge whether an employer has taken a serious look at it, but you cannot necessarily challenge the reason that he then gives for refusing it. It is that aspect that is the real blockage.

  Q88 Richard Burden: You think that should be made explicit in the law so that there can be a challenge?

  Ms Dawson: You have to be able to challenge the reasons because you need to be able to get at those ingrained attitudes.

  Q89 Judy Mallaber: Following on from your last answers, from your experience in manufacturing, can you identify any reasons why one sector might be positive about flexible working and another not positive? I recall a previous select committee I was on when we had people from the textile industry saying exactly what you have said, that it is not possible to run the production process with part-time workers. By contrast, I have a chocolate factory in my constituency that is very encouraging of flexible working. I cannot, for the life of me, see why there is a difference. Can you identify what those factors might be, and also any ways in which we might encourage within that entrenched mind-set.

  Ms McCulloch: Traditionally within a manufacturing environment, shifts is a big problem. Most companies work now on a 24/7 process. You might have a series of shifts, like a 4 on/4 off rotational 12-hour shift. Basically, when it comes to production, most companies would say "no", but we do have good examples of companies where they have job-share within a manufacturing environment. Technically, that is part-time working. Those are few and far between.

  Q90 Judy Mallaber: Basically, it is just too hard to organise and they cannot be bothered to work out how to do it?

  Ms McCulloch: I do not think it would be hard to organise. I do not think they can be bothered organising it because they have always had that position and they have always done it that way.

  Q91 Judy Mallaber: Moving on to another issue, the PCCS did a study amongst their civil service members last year, which confirmed what probably most of us know anecdotally, that the evidence is that managers and other staff often regard part-time workers as idle part-timers, not committed to the job, not deserving of training, not fit for being promoted. So even if they break that and they do get into a higher paid job, they are still likely to face discrimination. What do you think could be done to tackle this issue? As we also know, often the part-time workers work harder than people who are working full-time precisely because they feel a bit guilty about not getting on with the job and getting it finished?

  Ms McCulloch: I think, as part-time work becomes more and more common, you will see a shift in attitude towards part-time workers. You are right that there is an attitude towards part-time workers because obviously they are not doing a full-time job, etcetera. As part-time work becomes more common, along with flexible working, and we are seeing more and more part-time workers, attitudes will change. There are the national attitudes. I do not know the best way forward to change that.

  Ms Dawson: You have to put this in the context of knowing that we have a long hours'culture in this country. If you are a part-time worker, you are not seen as committed because that `presenteeism' is not there. I will come clean about the printing industry in that it is has a bad long hours culture and the opt-out is used by people. The opt-out of the working time regulations is disastrous in terms of challenging a long hours culture because if you have an industry where high earnings are possible, you have people who will grab those high earnings and who will do those long hours. You have a changing shift system. Whereas we had very simple double day shifts and treble shifts, we now have continental shifts, 12-hour shifts. People will do their three 12-hour shifts, but then they will do another 12-hour shift as overtime. That all creates an attitude to part-time working that says if you cannot do all of this, then you are not a real worker. The opt-out has encouraged that to continue. The men are saying they do not want to stop doing these hours because they can earn lots of money. There is an age point here. If you will forgive the phrase, this is a young man's game; they can do the long hours. I have been doing some research of my own not directly connected to this. One thing that has come out as part of that is that older men say they do not like these continental shifts, they do not like having to do that, they do not like the disruption to their families. Although it tends to be that you do fewer shifts when you do that kind of working, it does not necessarily mean that your time off coincides with when your family is off. It is very disruptive to the family. There are health and safety implications as you get older. The older men clearly do not like it as much as the younger men do. The younger men like to get these longer hours and earn the money. It is all part of challenging that culture.

  Q92 Judy Mallaber: Is the long hours culture as much a problem as discrimination against part-timers, or do the two go together?

  Ms Dawson: I think the two go together and feed each other.

  Q93 Chairman: We had evidence from Tony Dubbins. He suggested that the Working Time Directive did create problems but that when the union went in and was able to sell to the employer a more flexible shift working pattern—and they had difficulties selling it to the members—once the members had accepted it, then they would never go back to what they had before. Do you feel that at the point when your organisation is going to managers about changing from basic shift patterns to other more sophisticated or continental ones, whatever you call them, sufficient attention is given by your colleagues as negotiators to the prospects for part-time working?

  Ms Dawson: There is a problem because there is a split in the membership between who likes it and who does not.

  Q94 Chairman: Assuming that you are going to have to sell it to the membership at the end of the day, do you think sufficient attention is being paid by trade union negotiator as it were to the issue in the round, not just accommodating the Working Time Directive and protecting pay, but also to injecting into that the needs of the female employees, and in particular those women who would be prepared to work a more flexible part-time arrangement under the new hours?

  Ms Dawson: There is some truth in that. As I have said, women are in a minority in the industry and the union, so they do not have as much of a voice in saying they do not like this. As a union, we have made progress with our colleagues in getting many of the equality issues on the agenda. When you get to this level of the equality agenda, it is more complex and it takes longer to get people to understand the ramifications of different types of policies. This is the gender mainstreaming argument of trying to get every decision that is made considered from the point of view of different groups of workers. Does it have a different impact on women? Does it have a different impact on different parts of the equality agenda, black workers and so on? There is an issue here for us. It is not something we have ignored but something we are continuing. Personally, I have been running training with some other negotiators on these issues. I know we are having the debate.

  Q95 Mr Clapham: Can I take you up on the legislation, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act? The legislation has been around for 30 years. You say it is essential that should be strengthened because of the weaknesses. Can you tell us what you feel are the main weaknesses and how that really ought to be strengthened?

  Ms McCulloch: With regard to the Equal Pay Act, we really need to have mandatory audits and compulsory audits for employers. There are so many hidden salary scales that it makes it nigh on impossible when you are trying to address an equal pay situation. Although we have examples of companies voluntarily carrying out equal pay audits, once they have that information, they do not do anything with it anyway. We need mandatory audits and a follow-up and the legislation so that, once we achieve mandatory pay audits, we have a remedy there to be able to sort it out.

  Q96 Mr Clapham: Do you find that when, for example, you process a case, the employer will move from the equal pay argument to an equal value argument and that it becomes extremely difficult to get on top of the equal value argument?

  Ms Dawson: I am running through some cases in my mind. Equal value as a concept is very hard to get over to people until they have been through it. It is equally difficult to get it through to negotiators until they have done a case. At the moment, it tends to be people like us who are brought in to deal with that.

  Ms McCulloch: Amicus is now training our officers on how to deal with job evaluation. That will be done with activists and reps because we believe it is becoming an important issue. To be perfectly frank, although we have progressed in leaps and bounds and we do have a lot more female officers, traditionally most of our negotiators and full-time officers are still male. Job evaluation is probably something that they have never thought about before. I do not think half of them would know how to carry out a job evaluation. That aspect of the training is very important for us. All our officers will be going through that training and it will be mandatory. The same will happen with the activities. That will filter down to the activists as well.

  Ms Dawson: I want to make one important point on this. The way equal pay is dealt with at the moment tends to mean that individual women come forward and so we are taking individual cases. Frequently, the threat we face, as soon as that happens, is that they will reduce the comparator's wage. That happens almost every time. When you are trying to bring men on board to support the women, they see the women as a threat because the employers will reduce the wages. One thing that would really help, and I know there is a resistance to this, is class actions. We have to be able to deal with a grade of women who are being undervalued, rather than the individual. For a start, it takes an enormous amount of time to deal with lots of individual cases. I cannot see why the argument for efficiency alone does not carry the day when it comes to class actions.

  Q97 Mr Clapham: Do you find that employers on equal value claims are able to change the features so that you can go on for ever with comparisons?

  Ms McCulloch: If you look at one of the best examples, that of the speech therapist case, it took 11 years to win that case. That is a lengthy time when you are taking an equal value case or an equal pay case. The legislation does not make it easy.

  Q98 Mr Clapham: I have a very similar example. I set a case off for canteen workers and cleaners with the NCB. It first started in 1983. In 2002, we had not settled it because British Coal had disappeared altogether. We were told that unless we could focus minds, it could have gone on for another 20 years. It becomes very difficult when you are focusing on individuals and each individual has to have an individual comparator; you cannot take that comparator across the piece. Really what you are saying is that the law needs to be changed to allow one comparator to be taken across the piece.

  Ms Dawson: One of the problems in traditional areas is that sometimes the equal pay comes about because a man who did a skilled job has had his job changed; it has been red-circled, but it has been red-circled for ever and not just for two or three years. Trying to challenge that is also a problem because obviously you do not want to see the man's rate reduced. We are again into the issue of reducing rates. You want to plan a situation where the rates can gradually go up to that level. As you are dealing with legislation, I am conscious that everything we say sounds negative. The one thing we have put in there that I think is very positive is that we think the duty to promote equality should go across the board, in the private sector, the voluntary sector and so on. If we can get the message across that promoting equality is the way forward, then the rest of the legislation becomes redundant. I think we have to try to go this way to make it a positive thing and not a problem all the time.

  Q99 Sir Robert Smith: What are the barriers to class action?

  Ms Dawson: At the moment, under the law you cannot take class actions. You just put in lots of individual cases all at the same time and hope you can agree a test case.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 19 May 2005