Francis Stuart, Research and Policy Advisor, Oxfam Scotland
‘Work is the best route out of poverty’ – or so the saying used to go. Sadly, while the risk of poverty is still greater for those without employment, having a job is far from a guaranteed way to lift people above the poverty line.
The growth of low pay, under-employment, zero-hour contracts, low-paid self-employment, and increasingly insecure work – much of which impacts most heavily on women – seems at odds with official statistics showing record levels of employment.
We can’t simply count the number of people in work; we must increase the quality of the work too.
Beyond money, when you ask low-paid workers about their working experiences in Scotland, a worrying picture emerges: from the barista paid less than the minimum wage, to the call centre worker who felt publicly humiliated by their manager for taking ‘too long’ in the toilet, to the sales exec who says she was made to take work calls while on maternity leave and then pressurised into returning to work six weeks after giving birth to her daughter.
These are just some of the stories revealed in new research undertaken by Oxfam in partnership with the University of the West of Scotland and Warwick Institute for Employment Research to examine what low-paid workers in Scotland prioritise in order to have ‘decent work’, and how far the labour market delivers on these priorities.
Crucially, this wasn’t research on low-paid workers but research with low-paid workers. Through individual interviews, focus groups, street stalls, and an online opinion poll, more than 1500 people across Scotland 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 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, despite a big push in Scotland, 445,000 employees – one in five – are paid less than the living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation. Job security is also a growing concern with 138,000 employees on temporary contracts and 78,000 on zero-hour contracts. Additionally, 324,000 working adults in Scotland do not feel supported by their line manager.
Our research discovered some important differences in what women and men value most from work. Women valued a number of factors higher, including having: a supportive line manager; appropriate support to return to work following an absence due to injury or ill health; access to financial benefits beyond pay, such as help with childcare; flexibility in working hours; and a job that is easy to get to.
And in many of these areas, women face extra barriers. Not only are women more likely to experience bullying and harassment in the workplace, they also face greater barriers in gaining a foothold in the labour market in the first place, are more concentrated in low-paid sectors and occupations, and continue to be paid less than men for the same work.
Our research also highlights important differences by age and disability status. With young people and disabled people more likely to be living in poverty, understanding these priorities is critical to attempts to address poverty in Scotland today.
What is more, the negative impacts of poor quality and low-paid work extend far beyond individual workers – they also make efforts by policymakers to reduce poverty much more difficult and negatively impact the whole economy. This is despite research showing employers who provide increased pay and improved conditions can benefit significantly through, for example, increases in productivity and lower staff turnover.
While we recognise the limits of devolved powers, our report 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 cash is used to incentivise and reward good employment practices; and the development of strategies to tackle low pay in sectors where it is endemic.
It is critical that efforts to deliver decent work for all are defined by the people who need it most. As our research makes clear, for low-paid workers, there is a significant job still to be done.