I’ve been job hunting recently, it’s not much fun and to be honest, I’m feeling angry, a lot. I am a lone parent to a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old. I’m studying a master’s part time and I clean Airbnbs on an ad hoc basis; the cleaning is cash in hand, precarious and sometimes stressful considering I often have to bring the 5-year-old and fob him off with sweets and screens while having to clean up the mess he makes on top of the regular cleaning. So when I got turfed off my income support and pushed into the mire of Universal Credit applications I decided that, actually, I’d rather work anywhere than have to degrade myself by repeatedly detailing the 25 hours of job searching each week I have to do to meet the ‘commitment’ you make to the Tories.
So here I am searching for a job in a town 30 minutes by car from anywhere (don’t be fooled into thinking there is a bus service worth talking about or that is indeed affordable, and the train stopped coming here circa 1920); luckily though there are some jobs that come up, however here’s what I’ve discovered; if you’re not ‘fully flexible’ you’re not getting a job. What is this ‘fully flexible’ and what does it mean? Well I’ll tell you; it means discrimination against women. Full stop. Certainly, there are many reasons why a person of any gender might not be able to be fully flexible, nevertheless, this malarkey excludes parents, especially mothers and particularly lone mothers.
Last week I spent 40 of my precious minutes on this earth filling in an application form for a customer advisor post at Henderson’s Spar petrol station. I had itemised my considerable qualifications, listed referees and experience and ticked all the time-consuming fiddley boxes, when I came to a question about my availability. There was a table listing every day of the week down the left-hand side, intersecting with, along the top: early mornings from 6am, mornings, afternoons and nights until 11pm. The entire table was highlighted, the question below it asked if I was available for all of the highlighted sections and offered me a box to tick for yes or a box for no. Imagining that I would get the opportunity to detail the times I would be available on the next page, or offer how often I could do the early mornings or late nights on the next page, I clicked no. My application was immediately terminated by Henderson’s. Summarily executed. Prematurely rejected. There was a glib apology and a nice little *your availability may be suitable for another post* message which must of course be taken at face value and absolutely should not be perceived as a multimillion-pound capitalist business ensuring they cover their backs and are not blatantly discriminating against anyone. There are a number of Henderson’s run stores in my town, I have seen the advertisements many times over the years insisting on this magical characteristic of being ‘fully flexible’, but I should keep my eyes peeled and maybe some day in the future they will only require a partially flexible staff member instead.
Looking at statistics for Northern Ireland we can see that at 92%, women make up the vast majority of lone parents; their employment statistics look like this: 33% are in part-time work, 19% in full-time and 47% are not in paid work at all. Of the 8% of male-headed lone parent households, dads are similarly unemployed at 44%, 12% have part-time work and a whopping 43% manage to stay in full-time employment. The striking disparity between women and men lone parents being able to stay in full-time employment begs an explanation; one could go full feminist and make sweeping generalisations about women in society being vilified for perceived irresponsibility or similar, while men in the exact same position are hailed as angels, receiving cookies and full-on support from those around them in order to remain in the workplace. But one wouldn’t like to open that can of worms at present, there aren’t enough words available in this particular blog.
Nevertheless, given that the vast majority of lone parents are women, who are unable to commit to being ‘fully flexible’, which effectively bars them from even finishing an application form, this disproportionately affects women and that, my friend, is discrimination. In fact, I strongly believe this constitutes indirect discrimination based on sex as detailed in the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, I could be wrong, I’m not an expert, but I wouldn’t mind if an expert would like to have a look at it for me.
To explore the idea, I would like to take a look at what ‘fully flexible’ might actually look like for a lone parent; in preparation for presenting this I have researched how far in advance an employer must publish rotas, unfortunately, my research has come to a dead end and I can find no legal requirement other than ‘reasonable measures’ should be taken, which raises the question who decides what is reasonable? Obviously, the employer. If my employer is reasonable and gives me a good four weeks’ notice of rotas, this means that I have to juggle responsibilities, phone friends, ask my mum, my brother, whoever and then plot this all, make sure they don’t forget, or book in with a childminder sometimes paying expensive retainers to keep the child’s place while they aren’t attending. Constantly juggling schedules and booking in with family and friends to look after your child so that you can feed them is very, very stressful; I know, I’ve done it before.
So, if I am obliged to be available in a part-time job from 6am or until 11pm, who minds my kids? Childminders vary, and some may start before 7am, although I don’t know any, regardless, can you imagine getting your little child out of their bed at 5am, forcing them into their school uniform and bundling them out the door before sunrise? How many times a week must I do this and what effect does this have on my child’s learning, their mood, wellbeing, homework capabilities and general behaviour? I would hazard a guess that it would be unpleasant for a little person. Unpleasant too for the one carrying the mummy guilt. The night-time shift then, can I trust my 15-year-old to put his brother to bed without tears and tantrums and my house being burned down? The answer is no, and I wouldn’t want to force that responsibility on to him anyway. My mum could come around, but then she’d rather not sit in my house until the middle of the night either; childminders don’t do coming to your house, reading bedtime stories and sitting until 11:15pm, and many don’t do weekends. What if I have two night-time shifts, two early morning shifts and an afternoon shift throughout the entire week? Who will, mind my kids?! This is all supposing that my teenager doesn’t need me around at all. Universal Credit rules state lone parents of kids over 13 years have to work 35 hours a week or indeed spend that time searching. I wonder whose door social services will be knocking on when a terrible accident happens, when a leg is broken jumping off the roof on to the trampoline. Teenagers might like to think they don’t need someone around, but they do, especially in this day and age of mental-health crises amongst our young people.
‘Fully flexible’, is just impossible for lone parents. Henderson’s didn’t even want to know about my excellent customer service skills, my diligence, my cash handling skills, my ability to send every customer out of their shop with a smile on their face. They didn’t want to know that I will work hard, in a job that deep down I know I’m over-qualified for, because all I want to do, for now while my littlest is still little, is care for him, and right now I can’t even afford a new pair of shoes when he needs them. I want to work, we, lone parents, want to work, but if it’s going to interfere with our ability to raise our kids, if it’s going to cause us huge stress and make us mentally unwell; if it’s going to negatively affect our kids and if it’s not financially viable, what is the point? There is none. This notion of ‘fully flexible’ needs to change, employers need to become employee friendly, it’s good business sense, if nothing else.