Decent work: A job to be done

By Francis Stuart, Research and Policy Adviser, Oxfam Scotland 

What do you think makes for decent work? Is it about being paid fairly? How about having a supportive manager? Or is it simply about being safe in your workplace?

I expect you believe it is about all of these things – and more. That is certainly the message from the low-paid workers we have spoken to in Scotland as part of our latest research which reveals that for many of them, even such basic expectations are not being met.

Oxfam cares about work because it should provide a route out of poverty. Too often, it doesn’t.

In Scotland, around half of working age adults and two thirds of children in poverty are living in working households. This ‘in-work poverty’ is partly a result of low-pay, but it is also due to a number of other factors including job insecurity and the lack of enough, regular or predictable hours.

To better understand these factors, our research – ‘Decent work for Scotland’s low paid workers: a job to be done’ – examined what low-paid workers in Scotland prioritise in terms of work quality, and how far the labour market delivers them.

The report is the culmination of a 12-month study undertaken by Oxfam and the University of West of Scotland (through the UWS-Oxfam Partnership) with the support of Warwick Institute for Employment Research. Crucially, it wasn’t research on low-paid workers but research with low-paid workers. More than 1500 people gave their views about what ‘decent work’ means to them.

Participants, who were recruited from low-paid sectors such as social care, hospitality and cleaning, prioritised 26 factors. Top of the list were: a decent hourly rate; job security; paid leave; a safe working environment and a supportive line manager.

These are fairly basic conditions which all workers should be able to expect. None are unreasonable or extravagant. But is Scotland delivering this vision of decent work?

The experiences shared by participants, combined with an assessment of the labour market in Scotland, indicate there is still a long way to go despite welcome momentum on this agenda.

For example, not only are one in five employees paid less than the voluntary living wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation, but job security is also a growing concern with six per cent of all employees on temporary contracts.

One of our research participants, Stephen from Paisley, told us the hours he gets through agency work vary wildly from zero to forty hours per week. This means that his income fluctuates wildly too. He says he wants more hours but also feels that he can’t say ‘no’ when he is asked to work in case the agency decides not to call him again.

Conversations with research participants, like Stephen, suggest a lack of decent work is having a significantly detrimental impact on individuals’ lives. This reinforces previous studies showing that, in some cases, poor quality jobs are associated with similar or worse health than unemployment.

Poor quality and low-paid work not only undermines the physical and mental health for workers but it also makes efforts by policymakers to reduce poverty much more difficult and negatively impacts the whole economy. The negative impact therefore extends far beyond individual workers.

Yet research shows employers who invest in their workforce through increased pay and improved conditions can benefit significantly through, for example, increases in productivity and lower staff turnover.

Encouragingly, the priorities identified in our research are areas within which businesses and policymakers can make a real difference.  Our report therefore makes a number of recommendations to the Scottish Government, as well as to employers. These include: giving the Fair Work Convention a specific role in investigating and improving employment conditions; ensuring public procurement is used to incentivise and reward good employment practices; and the development of strategies to tackle low pay in sectors where it is endemic.

Given the large numbers of people in low-paid, precarious and insecure jobs, it is also clear that merely counting the number of people in work no longer adequately represents the labour market’s performance; we must monitor and increase the quality of work too.

By working across Government, employers, trade unions and the third sector, Scotland can make progress towards the delivery of decent work for all – as defined by the people who need it most.

However, as our research makes clear, there is a significant job still to be done.