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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Delivering fair work and effective employee voice

Fair work and employee voice are key elements of an economic strategy for Scotland. There is even a welcome cross party consensus developing.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Economy Committee today on the issue of fair work and employee voice. UNISON welcomes the Scottish Government’s recognition, through the Fair Work Convention and Labour Market Strategy, that a more progressive relationship between employers and their representatives can increase productivity and growth in a way that is inclusive and fair. 

The principle is becoming almost a cross party consensus, given Theresa May's recent rhetoric and establishing an inquiry led by Matthew Taylor. Even George Osborne recognised that subsidising low wage employers made no sense, hence his 'living wage'. Botched implementation, but the principle was right. Labour's 2020 Workplace Initiative has the potential to be even more radical.

Poor work drives negative outcomes way beyond the labour market. Insecure work, long hours and low pay impacts on families and communities and is a key driver of inequality. More than half of households in poverty in Scotland are in work. We know from international evidence that unequal societies do worse on every measure.

At today's session I suggested three stages to help deliver fair work.

As a first stage we should identify poor employment practice. That means naming, shaming and prosecuting employers who don’t meet the legal minimum standards such as the National Minimum Wage. It also means speaking out against poor employment practice such as exploitative zero/notional hour contracts.

The second stage is to promote good employment practice. I would point to NHS Scotland’s PIN policies and staff governance framework as a model approach. These go beyond collective agreements and offer practical guidance on a wide range of issues.

The Scottish Living Wage is an obvious example of positive employment practice and good progress has been made in extending accreditation in Scotland. Particularly in the hard to reach SME sector. While the Business Pledge is not unhelpful, we should be wary of ‘badges’ that don’t come with rigorous accreditation and monitoring. 

Good employment practice should also recognise the needs of all workers. Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. The ability to work without prejudice is a fundamental right, regardless of your background, gender, colour, disability or sexual orientation. Everyone should also be able to work without suffering harm. Each year in the UK, up to 50,000 people are killed by work and around two million people are either made ill or more ill because of their work.

The third stage is to deliver on fair work policies. UNISON Scotland supports the devolution of employment law, which would remove some of the constraints on government action. However, action can be taken using devolved powers including:

Public procurement. The new statutory guidance on workforce matters is an important step forward, but it needs to be properly implemented. 

Sectoral Bargaining.  There is a strong relationship between collective bargaining coverage and low wage work. The Scottish Government could promote sectoral collective bargaining in areas where it has the most leverage, including social care and childcare. These are sectors with many poor working practices. For example the recent 'Early Start' report identifies that 80% of childcare staff in the private and voluntary sector are paid less than Scottish Living Wage.

National Workforce Framework. The Christie Commission highlighted the necessity for a joined up vision for the public sector workforce. A National Workforce Framework could prevent wasted effort reinventing the wheel on issues like staff transfer, pensions, secondment and common procedures. This could include a staff governance framework, similar to that adopted by NHS Scotland, and a common approach to training and development .

This three stage approach means government should take a robust stance on poor practice and set out what good practice looks like with sufficient practical guidance. Then adopt a series of practical steps to ensure Fair Work is delivered using the levers available to the public sector. Ambition is good, but it must be followed by practical action to deliver Fair Work.

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