Frances O'Grady: "You can't put the demand for flexibility back in its box"

The TUC's general secretary on workers' rights in the coronavirus era.  

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When Frances O’Grady was rising through the ranks of the labour movement as a single mother, one of the things she wanted most in the world was flexibility. Raising two kids on her own, even working remotely just occasionally, would have made all the difference.

“It would have just taken the pressure off, especially when you are at that stage of little kids or they are teething or sleepless nights”, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) told me in a phone call as the government was starting to ease coronavirus lockdown.

Fast-forward to 2020 and many workers have more flexibility than ever. When the UK entered lockdown in March, millions found themselves off the commute and at a virtual office desk. The TUC decamped then, too. O’Grady, the first female general secretary in the organisation’s 152-year history, has been working with her laptop and iPad propped up on the kitchen table of her London home, where she lives with her two now grown up children.

O’Grady, herself the youngest of five siblings, comes from a family with a trade union tradition. Her father was a shop steward at the Leyland car plant in Cowley, the site of major industrial unrest. Her grandfather was a founding member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Her mother worked in a shop and later became an NHS ward clerk. In 1994 O’Grady joined the TUC as a campaigns officer. By 2013 she was elected unopposed to lead the body that represents 48 unions.

Over the years she has campaigned, among other things, for fair pay and equal rights for part-timers. O’Grady is a big believer in “positive flexibility”. Not the dark side of the gig economy and zero hours contracts, but a “two-way street” that fosters work-life balance. It is “critically human to be able to work in a flexible way that fits your caring responsibilities,” she says.

For employers, this is a matter of enlightened self-interest. The evidence points to flexible working boosting productivity. A 2018 report by HSBC, for instance, found that 89 per cent of tech sector workers were motivated by flexibility to be more productive. Eighteen per cent said poor work-life balance was why they left their last job.

Last year, the TUC joined the “Flex for All” campaign to push for flexibility – whether through part-time, home-working, or job shares – to be a legal right from day one of a job. According to TUC polling from 2019, in normal non-pandemic times one in three requests for flexible working were turned down. Nearly two-thirds of working-class jobs didn’t have flexi-time as an option.

The pandemic has certainly proved that businesses can survive flexibility, and it will be much harder for employers to say no to such requests in the future. “I don’t think you can put that demand back in its box,” says O’Grady. But the mass home-working experiment has also been fraught for many, a cocktail of atomisation and loneliness, with some struggling between work and childcare. Digital access to jobs 24/7 in our living spaces, notes O’Grady, has blurred work-life boundaries.

For her, the novelty has well and truly worn off. “I love having time with family but for me there isn’t a substitute for some face-to-face contact that isn’t mediated through a screen,” she says.

And that is for those lucky enough to be able to work from home, reducing their risk of catching or spreading Covid-19. “It does feel like a tale of two countries, doesn’t it, when you’ve got half the country still going to work and very often scared and then half of the country being serviced by supermarket deliveries.

“The idea that we are all in it together has been well and truly shot down hasn’t it?” The “front line” that kept the country running through lockdown was “much more likely to involve traditionally working-class jobs or new working-class jobs”, such as supermarket staff, care workers and delivery drivers.

“It’s exposed those class lines and gender lines and indeed as we know race lines as well, and with very real health risk consequences”, she says. The hiatus in childcare has been a major issue. Research indicates that women have spent more hours doing childcare and housework than men, and also that mothers are more likely to have been furloughed or lost their jobs. In June, the TUC published a report warning that if the government doesn’t bail out the childcare sector, women could be forced out of the workplace.

O’Grady has campaigned for improvements to women’s working lives throughout her career. “There is massive unfinished business on equal pay” she says, but also on equal value. “Why is it that a nursery worker is seen as so less valuable than a car mechanic, without offending car mechanics? What is going on when jobs that are predominantly female jobs are still seen as so less valuable [than] jobs dominated by men? There is something really messed up there and it has real life consequences.”

Coronavirus has highlighted the corrosive effects of austerity, she says, particularly in regards to the “fragility of our social care system… It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to cherish our social care workforce”.

How does she rate the government on its support for workers during the crisis? “The furlough scheme was obviously something we rolled up our sleeves on, and we were pleased that for the first time in this country we got a scheme that was about putting money in workers pockets and protecting their jobs as the best way to ensure that, as and when we do emerge from the crisis, we are in a better position to rebuild. But overall I want to hear the government admit that we can’t go back to business as usual, that we must have a new deal for workers and that austerity was a terrible mistake with a massive human price tag attached.”

And what does she make of the summer statement? Chancellor Rishi Sunak must “avoid deadweight gimmicks and target support on protecting jobs in manufacturing and aviation, and on the high street,” she told me in an email last week. “Good companies are in trouble and need support to survive. We need to work our way out of this crisis and we can’t afford to lose any more decent jobs.” 

This article is from our recent Spotlight report on business continuity. Click here to see the full supplement.

 

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

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