What next for Fair Work in the COVID era? We need to adapt, implement and influence.

By Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust

The COVID-19 labour market

As the UK first went into lockdown, I wrote in a blog contemplating the impact of the crisis on working lives: ‘Widespread disruption to ordinary patterns of working, socialising and caring will generate new working lives for all of us for a period. This is a moment of great destabilisation. It might lead to changes that are more long-lasting than the duration of the immediate crisis, for better or for worse.’

One year on, what is striking is how much uncertainty remains. Business models and ways of working have been disrupted on a near-universal scale. As Carnegie UK Trust research documents, the experience of living and working through the pandemic has varied greatly depending on our work and personal circumstances. We have seen a year of enhanced hygiene and social distancing measures and increased risk of exposure to coronavirus for many workers, and a year of remote working, with significant impacts on work-life balance and social interaction, for others. Restrictions on business activities to combat the spread of the virus has resulted in many losing work or part of their income: in January 2021, 4.5 million workers around the UK were furloughed. Of this number, 1.9 million had either been furloughed or unemployed for at least the previous six months, representing a significant dislocation from employment. 

But with coronavirus restrictions ongoing, we are still in the eye of the storm. The scale of unemployment once COVID-19 labour market support schemes are removed is difficult to predict. We don’t know what changes to our working lives, like greater use of home-working, might be sustained beyond the period necessitated by restrictions. Finally, we don’t know whether our shared experience of the pandemic, and the hitherto scarcely imaginable government interventions we have seen in response, may have altered views among the general public on their political priorities and sense of the possibilities for change in how we organise work and society.

It is in these unique circumstances the Scottish Parliament election is taking place. One thing that does seem clear is that with working lives impacted so dramatically, to quote CIPD Scotland: ‘No matter what the trajectory of our recovery looks like, no matter what economic changes are coming down the line, job quality has to be at the centre of the debate.’

Fair Work in Scotland

The good news is that Scotland is a leader in this field and there are strong foundations on which to build Fair Work in Scotland. The Scottish Government has advanced an ambitious agenda over the course of the last parliament geared towards the achievement of ‘Fair Work’ – defined as that which offers opportunity, security, fulfilment, respect and effective voice. A dedicated Fair Work Convention acts as an independent source of advice and scrutiny on progress. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Scottish Government and key social partners have been vocal in their continued support and emphasis on Fair Work, including by signposting employers navigating the pandemic to Fair Work guidance. A recent parliamentary motion showcased widespread cross-party support for Fair Work as a key principle of Scotland’s economic recovery. However, COVID-19 has significantly altered the context in which the Fair Work agenda is being moved forward. Marking one year of COVID-19, and faced with the juncture of the Scottish Parliament elections, the time felt apt to publish a report called What Next for Fair Work in Scotland? The report considers Scotland’s journey so far, and sets out our recommendations for how Fair Work can continue to be advanced in a way that is responsive to the significant challenges and opportunities for change presented by the pandemic.

What next for Fair Work? Adapt, Implement and Influence

A range of important Fair Work commitments and actions were already in train as we head into the election. The focus going forward should be on adaptation (where necessary), implementation and influence.

What do we mean by this?

Adapt: Ongoing efforts to manage the pandemic and its economic impact means we are still in the middle of a fast-changing and disruptive situation. There is evidence that the pandemic risks compounding and entrenching existing inequalities in the labour market - with, for example, women, young people, ethnic minority workers, and people with disabilities all facing additional challenges. Given this, there may be a need to continually assess whether the range of measures being advanced on Fair Work are sufficiently responsive to the needs of those most at risk of unemployment or deteriorating job quality.

Implement: Where Scottish Government has direct policy levers and spending power - such as social care, education, skills, elements of social security, and public procurement - they should continue the process of implementing a Fair Work focus, and where appropriate, consider how Fair Work could be more deeply embedded. As an example, Scotland’s ‘Fair Work First’ policy is one of the most advanced frameworks that exists in the UK for encouraging better quality work through conditionality applied to grants and procurement - but it is still in the process of being rolled out. The onus now is on all public bodies to engage with the Fair Work First guidance and develop a plan to make full use of it in their own procurement and grant strategies, and for the Scottish Government to continue to promote and evaluate the policy.

Influence: Employers are key actors in Fair Work, and there needs to be a continued process of influencing and persuading more employers to embed Fair Work. This was always important, but a renewed focus is needed as we navigate our way out of the pandemic. The pressures of COVID-19 may constrain the bandwidth of employers to advance Fair Work or make it seem a lesser priority; conversely, new opportunities for Fair Work may exist where employers have experienced new levels of solidarity and trust among their people in navigating the pandemic together, or where they feel a responsibility for ‘building back better.’ As a milestone in an ongoing process of engagement, we would like to see a large scale ‘Fair Work for the Recovery’ communications campaign run by government, engaging employers and maximising business and professional networks (such as CIPD Scotland). This should be in place for the phased reopening of the economy from the spring, to sustain momentum on Fair Work.

These are just some of our ideas – you can read the Carnegie UK Trust’s full report with 18 recommendations here.

The Carnegie UK Trust is an endowed charitable foundation which aims to improve the wellbeing of the people in the UK and Ireland through policy and practice. Gail works on the Carnegie UK Trust’s Fulfilling Work thematic priority, which has a focus on driving the creation of more ‘good quality’ work in the labour market, with the aim of ensuring that work supports individual, community and societal wellbeing.

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