2021: The need for flexibility and work

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Professor JosAnn Cutajar, Department for Gender and Sexualities, Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta

A number of workers with caring responsibilities have up to now tried to juggle with work and caring by working part-time or reduced hours

This is especially true of workers with dependents such as those taking care of elderly relatives, family members with a chronic disease or with a disability which needs a substantial amount of care. This explains the low activity rates particularly for women over 40 years in Malta. The lack of formal care arrangements and long-term community-based care explains why Maltese women have the shortest employment careers at EU level or the tendency to work part-time or reduced hours. Career interruptions or the move to part-time or reduced hours, leads to gaps in national insurance contributions, which in turn leads to no or low pensions for women, leading to poverty after retirement. According to Eurostat, the gender pension gap in 2019 stood at 39.5%. This means that around 40% of retired women have no access to their own pension.

This scenario can however change if flexible time arrangements, as delineated by the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, come into force. A cursory look at EWCS 2015 data, analysed by EIGE (2019), shows that Maltese workers to date have insufficient flexible work arrangements. In the majority of the cases, work time arrangements are set by the company (72% of the time). When it comes to workers choosing between several fixed working schedules determined by the company or organisation, 8% of female workers in Malta, and 4.2% of their male cohorts do so. Female workers (13.3%) in Malta in comparison with 7.8% of male workers can adapt working hours within certain limits, what is referred to as flexi-time. When it comes to working hours as determined by workers, the irony is that male workers (16.1% vs 6.9%) are in a better position to do so.

Variable working hours, work time banking or compressed work weeks give workers greater autonomy and more control over their working times. This leads to less work-family conflict, greater female labour force participation, higher fertility rate, less burnout and better health behaviours. Organisations also benefit since this will lead to the take up of less sick leave, with a greater commitment to the employer, which means less employee turnover, as well as fewer missed deadlines (Lyness et al., 2012)

Statistics provided by the People and Standards Division in 2019 show that teleworking and flexible work schedules are popular among both men and women in the public sector. The 2020 lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that teleworking and flexibility are doable and they help both workers and employers respond to contingencies. In this case the pandemic made employers realise that people do work from home and that they do not need constant monitoring to do so.

In a recent seminar on the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, the outgoing Consultative Council for Women’s Rights underlined that work flexibility is important in today’s situation as otherwise both our economies and our families will suffer. Anamaria Magri Pantea, Mary Gaerty and Doris Bingley underlined that flexible working arrangements refer to flexibility in work-time duration, scheduling and location; work-time banking over specific periods (for example, week, month or even a year); commissioning of outcomes as against a specific work-time duration and others.

Such flexible work arrangements are the most commonly adopted measures in support of work-life balance across various countries and sectors. The main reason for this is that these measures involve no or very limited additional direct cost to the public budget and while they may have a cost for companies, the improved staff productivity and retention benefits outweigh the costs.

Such work flexibility is typically brought about by a mix of legislative provisions and collective bargaining, and thus policy-makers and trade unions play a key role in this sense. Civil society organisations are also key influencers since they create awareness on the prerequisites and impacts of flexible work arrangements at the level of the wider society.

Flexible work arrangements need to balance out socio-economic objectives and interest across the entire economy and society, with due consideration of both employees’ and employers’ prerequisites. These changes would entail new and increased training on work ethics and discipline, self- and subordinates’ management in the secure, effective and efficient use of ICT tools. There is also the need for due consideration of a fair distribution between employer and employees of the costs involved by the ICT and other resources and services used in the performance of work. A cursory look at the new Spanish law on remote working can be helpful here.

Gaerty, Pantea Magri and Bingley underlined that when it came to flexibility, there is no one solution. It is not a question that one size fits all. Different sectors have different needs. This means that remote working or flexi-time is not the answer for all economic sectors. The same can be said when it comes to families. Different families have different needs. Single parents, families with children under five years of age, those taking care of persons with a disability, the elderly and chronically sick family members – these should be given priority in availing themselves of flexible working arrangements and may need tailor-made solutions to fit their needs.

The outgoing CCWR members underlined that most importantly, there must be an agreement between the employee and the employer. This arrangement will be on the agreement that it is reversible and the employee can return to previous work arrangements. At the same time, it should be underlined that work flexibility must not interfere with career progression and upskilling should this be required as part of career development. The risk of falling behind in career development due to not being present at the place of work is to be identified and rectified as part of the arrangement.

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