From ‘good work’ to ‘fair work’: how Scotland and Wales may be leading the way in equality

Posted by The Project Team on 30 March 2023

In this blog Dr Joyce Mamode considers how the Scottish and Welsh Fair Work agendas may offer offer greater potential to advance equality and achieve broader social justice objectives than the UK-wide ‘good work’ agenda.  

Our career ambitions and expectations of the barriers we might encounter on the way are, in some ways, unique and individual. However, in other ways they are shaped and constrained by the identities we carry, or that others assign to us.

Women experience unfairness at work in ways that men do not. Those who find themselves minoritised by identities based on ‘race’, sexual orientation or disability, experience aspects of unfairness at work that others may have no conception of. There are aspects of unfairness that arise from differences in socio-economic backgrounds that those who have had a more privileged upbringing may not be aware of. Just to complicate the picture, there are also the intersections in between that result in compound experiences of unfairness for the individuals who find themselves situated within them.

With these broader social justice perspectives in mind, the Scottish and Welsh Fair Work agendas can be seen as a welcome alternative to the UK-wide ‘good work’ agenda, proposed in 2017 by the Taylor Review[1] and considered by many to be lacking in ambition as a tool for substantially improving work for anyone but most extremely exploited groups of workers.   The concept of ‘good work’ promoted by the review is aimed at supporting what it calls the ‘British way’ of employment regulation, which could be categorised as a ‘just about good enough’ approach. Its focus is the maximising of employers’ flexibility through the availability of a range of precarious, temporary, fixed term and zero hours options whist providing a safety net consisting of some (very) basic minimum standards.

The ‘fair work’ concept that is coming to the fore in the devolved nations may represent the beginnings of distinctive Scottish and Welsh alternatives to the laissez faire ‘British way’ as far as experiences of work are concerned. In both cases, the ‘fair work’ public policy agenda has emerged out of a desire to encourage a more ‘inclusive’ form of economic growth that distributes its benefits more evenly than the UK-wide model delivers. In both cases, the motivation can be understood as serving an underlying political imperative to demonstrate that devolution is making a real difference to people’s lives[2].

As ‘fair work’ rises up the public policy agenda in the context of Scottish and Welsh devolution, it seems an appropriate time to consider why both the concept and its implementation need to take explicit account of the different experiences of fairness and unfairness linked to protected characteristics such as gender, ‘race’, disability and sexual orientation.

The Scottish Fair Work Convention, established in April 2015, took the first steps towards developing a distinct, devolved approach to work quality when it published its Fair Work Framework a year later[3]. This set out an aspiration for Scotland to become ‘world leading in fair work’ over the following decade. Recognising the limitations of the current Scottish devolution settlement, under which employment legislation powers are retained at Westminster, the Fair Work Framework recommended firstly a focus on applying ‘fair work’ principles to those directly employed in the public sector, and secondly, the use of public procurement to encourage the adoption of ‘fair work’ principles by companies seeking to win public contracts.   

In support of these recommendations, the members of the Fair Work Convention offered in the Fair Work Framework a definition of what ‘fair work’ should entail, comprising five dimensions: effective voice, security, fulfilment, respect and opportunity.

Effective voice is ideally collective and provided through recognised trade unions at an enterprise or sector level. Security refers to predictability in pay, working time and other contractual arrangements, in other words the opposite of insecure, precarious work. Fulfilment is about ensuring jobs are designed to maximise self-efficacy and autonomy in their work and respect refers to the need to afford dignity to all at the workplace, and ensure protections are in place to avoid abuses of power. Opportunity involves removing unfair barriers to access work and to progress once employed.

However, women and racialised minorities face particular barriers as far as opportunity is concerned and increasing opportunity in a general sense does not necessarily translate to more equal outcomes for these groups. The Scottish Fair Work Framework makes some acknowledgement of the differences in experiences that exist for these group, for example noting that women and racialised minorities might experience greater difficulties as far as opportunity is concerned. However, the Framework makes no specific recommendation as to how policy makers might ensure that such differences might be recognised when policy turns to practice in relation to public procurement activities.

The Welsh Fair Work Commission took a similar approach in many respects to its Scottish equivalent but arriving at six, rather than five fair work characteristics. Their report[4] published in 2019, also recognised the limitations inherent in the Welsh devolution settlement and recommended a focus on promoting ‘fair work’ objectives in relation to public sector employment as well as private and third sector employment linked to public procurement contracts.  

The Fair Work Wales report echoes the Scottish equivalent in offering an overarching definition of fair work. In the Welsh case the definition refers to, work ‘where workers are fairly rewarded, heard and represented, secure and able to progress in a healthy, inclusive environment where rights are respected’. There are clear parallels between the earlier Scottish dimensions of ‘fair work’ and the six characteristics arrived at in the Welsh definition: fair reward; employee voice and collective representation; security and flexibility; opportunity for access; growth and progression; safe, health and inclusive working environment and finally, legal rights respected and given substantive effect.

There is one noteworthy difference. The Welsh definition of ‘fair work’ goes on to make explicit reference to equality and inclusion being ‘integral’. This represents a necessary but not sufficient strengthening of the ‘fair work’ concept, from a social justice perspective.  This declaration acknowledges that there is a need to integrate into ‘fair work’ ambitions a recognition of difference of experience, particularly related to the social group characteristics that are recognised in law as being in need of protection[5].

However, on their own, declarations in high level strategic documents do not guarantee that the principles they espouse will be reflected in eventual policy implementation.  Early indications from interviews conducted with procurement, equality and trade union experts, as part of the Buying Social Justice Through Procurement project, suggest that more needs to be done to embed considerations of the protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act in public procurement activities.   Many of those experts observe that issues that relate to the equality ‘strands’ are sometimes (but not always) de-prioritised or even forgotten altogether. 

So how can we ensure greater consistency across all public procurement activities as far as recognising all the aspects of ‘fair work’ are concerned?

Strategic prioritisation seems to make a real difference. Those at the top of public sector bodies can start by drawing direct, repeated and systematic attention to the need to take into account of outcomes for all groups who share recognised protected characteristics in order to ensure a focus on gender and ‘race’ considerations when seeking to ensure the creation of ‘fair work’. Without such clear prioritisation from the top, there is a real danger that those with the least powerful voices, may get lost in the quest for ‘fair work’ as other policy priorities, such as social-economic disadvantage come to the fore.  However, it should not be an either-or choice, social-economic disadvantage matters too, but it needs to be considered alongside intersections with other aspects of unfairness such as those that relate to protected characteristics like gender, race, disability and sexual orientation.

As Scotland and Wales develop and define their own distinct policy agendas, including their own, fairer and more just approaches to work, policy makers have an opportunity to send clear, consistent and unambiguous signals to policy implementors about the need to emphasise a broader conceptualisation of fairness; one that embraces the experiences of all and recognises the multiplicity of intersectional experiences of unfairness.  The respective visions of Scotland as a Fair Work Nation and a Fair Work Wales will ultimately be all the more influential if they are clearly advocating a vision of what ‘fair’ means that encompasses all those who live within their borders.  

[1] Taylor, M. et al. (2017) Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

[2] Hazel, R. (2000) The State and the Nations: The first year of devolution in the United Kingdom. Thorveton: Imprint Academic.

[3] Fair Work Convention (2016). The Fair Work Framework. Scotland: Fair Work Convention.

[4] Welsh Government (2019) ‘Fair Work Wales: Report of the Fair Work Commission’. Welsh Government

[5] The Equality Act (2010) defines nine protected characteristics: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex and sexual orientation.

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