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The second biennial equality audit, conducted by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), reveals that workforces exposed to a trade union presence are more likely to experience the benefits of flexible working, than those who are employed in non-unionised workplaces.

Responding to a 10-page questionnaire, 67% of the participating TUC-affiliated unions reported success in negotiating measures that can improve an employee's work-life balance. Similar as well as less pronounced achievements were also evident in other quarters, such as childcare and dependents, women's pay and harassment and bullying.

Hunting in Numbers

Unlike the first audit in 2003 which was expected to set benchmarks across the whole range of Union activity, this year's review focuses solely on the issue of collective bargaining. The audit shows that successful negotiating, often between several unions and an employer, has forged greater parental rights, broken up rigid non-productive shift patterns, improved access for ethnic minority workers and dampened the influence of the far right.

"The Government should introduce new workplace statutory union equality representatives to promote equality and more collective agreements like the ones in this 2005 equality audit," said TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber.

He believes that a united approach to bargaining can and has changed the lives of many employees up and down the country. In relation to the relevance of the audit, he emphasised that over two thirds of the TUC's 67 national affiliates had contributed, which represents a near-total 98% of all affiliated union members and amounts to a 6% rise from 2003.

Smart Work says Employment Minister

Coinciding with the release of the audit was a well-timed speech by the Employment Minister on the life-enhancing benefits of drawing the curtains on the UK's dawn till dusk working habits.

Speaking at the launch of a new guide geared at changing working practices, Gerry Sutcliffe revealed that many leading employers have also realised the economic advantages of adopting schemes such as job sharing, flexitime and annualised hours.

He hailed the Government's latest less work and more play initiative as a step forward in tackling the country's long hours culture, and addressing the health, safety and welfare issues of excessive labouring. "Creating a culture where we work smarter rather than longer is key to improving worker satisfaction, as well as improving competitiveness, productivity and retaining skilled workers," he said.

Hours Juggled but not Dropped

Although Sutcliffe points to the changing attitudes of some employers, as regards to flexible working programmes, there is still little proof to suggest any substantial net gains in free time.

Referring back to the audit; almost half of the unions surveyed had managed to negotiate agreements on job sharing and flexitime, but only 31% oversaw deals concerning actual reductions in staff hours. More worrying, however, is the fact that the pay and conditions of most employees in the UK often go unchallenged. A Labour Force survey showed that in 2003 only 36% of workers were even covered by collective bargaining.

The need to stop the clock on the nation's work-television-bed ethos is no more visible than in Britain's accelerating skills gap. In an article written for FE News by Jethro Marsh at the front end of summer, it was revealed that one of the most popular reasons for employees not to enrol on work-based training courses was that they simply had no time or energy left for further training, no matter how desirable it appeared to be.

Brendan Barber is not oblivious to the challenges that lay ahead, and whilst he rightfully praises the efforts and achievements outlined in the audit he also specifies the additional action that, he feels, can win greater equality for individuals at work;"There is still much more to do. Just as union workplace, learning and safety reps get time off to concentrate on making work a fairer, better skilled and safer place to be, theres a need for more equality reps to allow unions to fight discrimination and give more workers the chance of a better work/life balance. Giving equality reps time off from their other jobs would help make this a reality."

Phillip Byrne, Union Affairs Correspondent

Are we being outshone by our fresher-faced, more time to wine, dine and train on-line European counterparts? Tell us in the FE Blog

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