Powerful testimony of low-paid workers in Scotland reveals a job to be done on work quality

Unique research project finds low paid workers priorities are too often not being met


New research reveals the priorities that low-paid workers in Scotland believe are needed to deliver decent work and, for the first time, compares these to the reality in Scotland.

The study shows there are clear gaps between the priorities identified by the workers involved in the research and the situation in too many of today’s workplaces.

The publication of “Decent work for Scotland’s low-paid workers: a job to be done” [1] follows a Scotland-wide consultation with more than 1500 people by Oxfam and the University of the West of Scotland (through the UWS-Oxfam Partnership), with support from Warwick Institute for Employment Research.

Participants in the project were asked: “What makes for decent work?”. They prioritised a total of 26 different factors, detailed in the report. The top five factors are fairly basic conditions which workers should be able to expect – but an assessment of the realities of the labour market suggests that Scotland is failing to deliver them [2]:

1.   A decent hourly rate – 1 in 5 employees are paid less than the voluntary living wage

2.   Job security – 138,000 employees are on temporary contracts

3.   Paid leave – 118,000 employees do not receive the statutory minimum paid holidays

4.   A safe working environment – 88,000 workers report illness caused or made worse by work in the previous twelve months

5.   A supportive manager – 324,000 adults in work feel their line manager does not support them

The report will be launched at the Scottish Parliament tonight [Wednesday] at an event featuring Keith Brown MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work. [3]

One of the authors of the report, 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 at a time when so many people are in work, but still struggling financially.

“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 critically important to people’s lives and that a decent hourly rate is only one part of the story.

“This research makes clear there is a significant job to do to improve the quality of work available in Scotland. It also makes a number of recommendations to the Scottish Government and employers to achieve this. Scotland can make major progress towards the delivery of decent work for all but the voices of low-paid workers must drive this effort.”

The research report captures powerful testimony from low-paid worker’s including how many struggle to stretch their income to cover basic essentials. Access to, and enforcement of, basic terms and conditions emerged as significant priorities. However, the research also highlighted the wider factors which contribute to ‘decent work’: including fairness of pay; freedom from discrimination; work that provides a sense of purpose; regular and predictable working hours; and opportunities for career progression.

Dr Hartwig Pautz, Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of the West of Scotland, said: “Our research shows that a large number of workers lack what should be basic features of a decent job such as a permanent, secure contract, paid holidays, and a supportive line manager. Significant numbers also feel they are not being paid fairly compared to other jobs and do not have opportunities to progress in their current workplace. Too many of Scotland’s workers find themselves in paid employment lacking even these basic features of work.

“We know, from research on health inequalities and social determinants of health, that poor quality work can affect people’s health and general wellbeing quite adversely when it does not satisfy at least the basic characteristics of ‘decent work’. For Scotland to have so many in this situation is very problematic, given that there is already immense health inequality in Scotland.”

The research involved focus groups, individual interviews, street stalls and an opinion poll [4]. 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 often face additional disadvantages in the workplace beyond low pay, including disabled people, lone parents and ethnic minorities.

Sally Wright, Senior Research Fellow, from Warwick University, said: “There is a strong rationale for improving the quality of work for individuals, business and the economy. The participatory methods used in this research provide a better understanding of the views of low-paid workers – including how they perceive their workplaces as well as the impact work has on their everyday lives.

“Our findings suggest that for many low-paid workers, their expectations in relation to ‘decent work’ are not currently being met. More importantly, our findings provide pointers to policy-makers and employers about what needs to change for decent work to become a reality for workers in Scotland.”

This table shows the top priorities identified in the report, as well as quotes from research participants, illustrating the detrimental impact a lack of decent work has on individuals.


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… 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, male.


Paid holidays and paid sick leave

“Everything is such an issue just to get time off. It

really is difficult ’cause you give a lot of stuff up ’cause it’s not worth the hassle… And then five years down the line you realise… that’s all you do, is go to work.

Social care worker, female.


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

“I have been assaulted at work. And I had told

my company they’d let me down, and they said ‘No, we haven’t let you down’… I just feel like I wasn’t respected at all. I was just an inconvenience.”

Social care worker, female


A supportive line manager

“They humiliate you in front o’ people, questioning

why you were in the bathroom for too long. Some people, they’re older women in my work, and they’re about seventy, eighty and they get questioned because they take three minutes going tae the toilet.”

Call centre worker, female


 [1] The report is available here:  https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/decent-work-for-scotlands-low-paid-workers-a-job-to-be-done-619740

[2] All figures and sources are included in the report. The most recent available data was used in all cases. Alongside the main a report, a more detailed labour market assessment is also available at the link above.

  [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 have published 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 are available on the UWS-Oxfam Partnership website: www.uwsoxfampartnership.org.uk.