Decent work for low paid workers: a job to be done

Francis Stuart Inequality, Living wage

As ‘Decent work for all’ is one of the SDGs, understanding what decent work means in context is important. Here, Francis Stuart talks about the new publication ‘Decent work for Scotland’s low paid workers: a job to be done’, what people say and how perception of decent work differs from Scotland today. 

The promotion of ‘decent work for all’ is one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by 193 countries at the United Nations in 2015. The goals are universal and apply to all countries.

Yet in developed countries such as the UK, the nature and experience of work, as well as the security and rewards flowing from it, have changed significantly in recent decades.

Although the risk of poverty is still greater for those without employment, having a job is no longer a guaranteed way to lift people above the poverty line. In over half of the low income households in the UK at least one adult is working.

Having a job is no longer a guaranteed way to lift people above the poverty line.

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 work that doesn’t provide enough, regular or predictable working hours.

That is why, in Scotland, where the Scottish Government have established a Fair Work Convention and there seems to be increasing momentum around job quality, we’ve published new research into decent work – what it is, and how far we need to go to achieve it.

Decent work for Scotland’s low paid workers: a job to be done‘, is the culmination of a 12-month long study undertaken by Oxfam and the University of West of Scotland with the support of Warwick Institute for Employment Research. Crucially, this 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 through focus groups, individual interviews, street stalls and an opinion poll.

Participants were deliberately recruited from low-paid sectors such as social care, hospitality and cleaning, and we also particularly sought the views of demographic groups facing additional barriers in the workplace.

Participants prioritised 26 factors as important for decent work. Top of the list was a ‘decent hourly rate’; ‘job security’; ‘paid leave’; ‘a safe working environment’ and ‘a supportive line manager’. Factors that appeared near the bottom were ‘varied work’ and ‘control and flexibility over how work is delivered’.

But how far away was their vision of decent work from the reality in Scotland today? Experiences shared by participants indicate the significantly detrimental impact that a lack of decent work has on individuals’ lives.

“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)

This picture is confirmed by our associated labour market assessment which, using the latest data available, shows:

  • 1 in 5 employees are paid less than the voluntary living wage
  • 6% of all employees are on temporary contracts
  • 5% of all employees do not receive the statutory minimum paid holidays
  • 3% of workers report illness caused or made worse by work in the previous twelve months
  • 13% of adults in work feel their line manager does not support them

The top five priorities for decent work are fairly basic conditions which workers should be able to expect. None are unreasonable or extravagant. They are also areas within which businesses and policymakers can make a real difference. They should therefore be priority areas for policy and practice.

To promote decent work across Scotland, our report makes a number of recommendations to policymakers as well as to employers. These recommendations include ways to investigate and enforce basic employment conditions; ensure public procurement is used to incentivise and reward good employment practices; and investment in comprehensive and timely survey data to ensure the success of the labour market is not solely judged by the number of people in work.

Our research makes clear that there is a significant job to be done to provide decent work for all. By working across Government, employers, trade unions and the third sector, we should be able to make major progress towards this aim – but only if we ensure it is defined by the people who need it most.


Katie McLean