What Makes for ‘Decent Work’ in Scotland?

Initial findings of unique research project with low paid workers published

New research reveals for the first time the factors which low paid workers in Scotland believe are needed to deliver decent work – with sufficient pay not enough.

The initial results [1], which follow a Scotland-wide consultation with more than 1500 people, suggest low paid workers in Scotland value a raft of other factors beyond a decent hourly wage.

Participants in the project were asked: “What makes for decent work?” A total of 26 different factors (which are detailed in the initial report) were identified. The top five, from the focus groups, were:

  1. A decent hourly rate
  2. Job security
  3. Paid holidays and paid sick leave
  4. A safe working environment
  5. A supportive line manager

While these factors appear to be basic minimum standards which should be guaranteed to all workers, research participants suggested this was often not the case.

The project is being undertaken by the University of the West of Scotland-Oxfam Partnership with the support of Warwick University. A full report – including an assessment of how Scotland’s labour market is performing against the priorities identified – will be released later in the year.

While there was some variation in the priorities identified according to gender – for example, women value a supportive line manager more than men – the research shows remarkable consistency in people’s top priorities for decent work.

Francis Stuart, Oxfam Scotland’s Research and Policy Adviser, said: “Too often paid work fails to serve as a reliable route out of poverty – that should concern us all.

“While the focus placed on payment of the living wage is welcome, policymakers still tend to focus on increasing employment rates without paying enough attention to the quality of work created. This research shows the quality of employment is also critically important to people’s lives.

“Ahead of May’s Scottish Parliament elections, we hope all political parties consider the priorities identified by low paid workers, and outline what they will do using devolved powers to help make work better in Scotland.”

In October, Oxfam Scotland called on all political parties in Scotland to support the development of minimum standards of job quality and commit to promoting them. [2]

Dr Hartwig Pautz, Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of the West of Scotland, said: “It’s not surprising that being paid enough to cover basic needs was one of the consistent things identified as important. But the UWS-Oxfam Partnership research also shows that decent work is about much more than only a living wage, as important as a real living wage is.

“Many of the people we spoke to stressed that they wanted more fairness and respect in their workplace. For them, that meant fair pay for similar jobs and fair rules and procedures applied equally without discrimination.

“Our experiences, as researchers in this project, clearly demonstrate that job quality and decent work are important topics for people in Scotland and that a public debate is needed. Our ongoing work in this project will contribute to this debate.”

The research involved focus groups, individual interviews, street stalls and an opinion poll [3]. The project had a particular focus on the views of women and men with experience of low-paid work and an effort was made to engage groups who may face additional disadvantages in the workplace beyond low pay, including ethnic minorities and people with a disability.

Dr Sally Wright, Senior Research Fellow, from Warwick University, said: “This report is the first of its type in Scotland. It not only provides a voice for workers who want decent work, it shows what needs to change for decent work to be created in Scotland.

“Low paid workers want a decent income, but they also want basic protections in their work, including job security, paid leave, a safe working environment and a supportive line manager. Too many low-paid workers are lacking even these basic features from their work.”

The table below shows the five top priorities identified in the report, as well as illustrative quotes from participants who took part in focus groups and interviews.


Description of factor necessary for “Decent Work”

Quote from participant in research project


An hourly rate or salary that is enough to cover basic needs such as food, housing & things most people take for granted without getting into debt

“It’s just not enough, how can I pay all my bills and rents and… buy a bus pass… it’s just not evening out… It means you can’t participate in basic things. I’ve got… my cousin’s fortieth birthday’s coming up at the end of the month, and that’s a real issue for me ’cause I’m thinking ‘How am I gonnae manage this financially?'”

Social care worker, female.


Job security

“I lost my job today, because… well I didn’t lose it, I just haven’t got hours if that makes sense… and I’ve had no notice on that because I’m agency… and that’s just been told today, ‘Don’t come back until the end of January’.”

Agency worker, hospitality sector.


Paid holidays and paid sick leave

“You put your names intae the hat tae see who’s eligible for Christmas off. Your name doesn’t get pulled, you work it. And it’s the same people’s name that get pulled all the time, the favourites… I’ve worked Christmas Day for the last three year… Never even got Boxing Day off.”

Call centre worker, female.


A safe working environment free from physical and mental risk or harm

“I was getting shouted at, at least one day a week… the more stressed I was getting, the less sleep I was getting, the more mistakes I was making. The stress was unbelievable.”

Self employed book-keeper, female


A supportive line manager

“Our bosses, they’ve done things like paid people’s flights to see their parents in another country when they’ve got ill… Which is really sweet, you know.”

Kitchen worker, female


[1] The report is available here: www.uwsoxfampartnership.org.uk

[2] Oxfam Scotland’s policy paper – “Even It Up: Scotland’s Role in Tackling Poverty by Reducing Inequality at Home and Abroad” – outlines nine policy priorities for the Scottish Parliament – including decent work – and can be accessed here: https://oxf.am/Zn6u 

[3] 277 people took part in focus groups, 18 in individual interviews, 433 in street stalls and 802 in the opinion poll. The poll was carried out by YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 802 Scottish workers aged 18-64 earning less than GBP 20,000. Fieldwork was undertaken between  25th January – 15th February 2016. The survey was carried out online.

[4] Researchers from UWS are currently undertaking three separate but complementary projects around the concept of ‘decent work’. They focus on school pupils’ views on decent work, re-offenders’ views of decent work and employers’ views of decent work. These will be published on the UWS-Oxfam Partnership website later in March: www.uwsoxfampartnership.org.uk