How can policymakers deliver an economy and society characterised by fair work for all? – Professor Patricia Findlay

If we agree – as many people do – that fair work is a good thing, how can policymakers deliver an economy and society characterised by fair work for all? That is the overarching question addressed in research undertaken by our team of researchers at the Scottish Centre for Employment Research at the University of Strathclyde. What our recent research shows, however, is that developing and delivering policy to drive fair work is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Professor Patricia Findlay
Professor Patricia Findlay, Director of the Scottish Centre for Employment Research

There are at least three reasons for this.  First, there are lots of actors in the fair work landscape – workers, employers, trade unions, regulators, policymakers, campaigning organisations, consumers and citizens, to name a few.  Policymakers are only part of the network of fair work stakeholders, and on many key aspects of workplace practice, employers are the key decision makers, not policymakers.  But policymakers – the Scottish Government and local authorities – can still play an important role.

Second, what is it we need to do to use policy to drive fair work? The answer is lots of different things. Our research identified that we need to improve awareness of the very idea of fair work. We need to enhance understanding of what – in terms of workplace practice – it involves. We need more workplace stakeholders to endorse the importance of fair work. Crucially, we need to help them identify what action can be taken to deliver fair work, and what support for action might be needed. And we need ways of sharing good (and not so good) practices and their outcomes so learning can be shared with others.

Third, the levers or instruments available to policymakers to deliver change take different forms. Perhaps the most obvious is the power to regulate or legislate (what we call ‘authority’ powers). The Scottish Parliament has well-defined authority powers that can be used by the Scottish Government, but importantly, employment law powers – that are arguably crucial in delivering fair work – are reserved to Westminster. But the Scottish Government has other authority powers – for example, to deliver employability support services with fair work at their core, or to appoint individuals and bodies to help in policymaking, for example, as non-executive directors of public bodies or to Industry Leadership Groups or other bodies tasked with some aspect of the policy process.  Using influence in these spaces, policymakers could better embed fair work in the deliberations and dialogue of groups that develop industry specific strategies and set key industry priorities. So fair work can be leveraged where policymakers design fair work criteria into the areas in which they have authority – for example, where local authorities use licencing powers.

Beyond formal authority, there are other ways of influencing fair work available to policymakers in Scotland. One is using public spending to help embed fair work. Using the spending power of the state to pursue wider social and economic objectives has a long history.  So when the Scottish Government, local authorities, public agencies and public bodies spend on goods and services, can they spend it in ways that support fair work, for example, by inserting labour clauses and only contracting with organisations who are committed to delivering fair work? We see this in operation in relation to certain government grants and contracts under the Fair Work First approach, which is to be welcomed.  But is it possible for more or all of public spending to leverage fair work?

Policymakers also have important organisational powers, for example, in the provision of business support through public agencies or local authorities, in which a commitment to fair work and, importantly, the evidence on the importance of fair work, can be conveyed.  Publicly funded education and training provision can play an important role in improving awareness and understanding of fair work and in driving employers and others to action.

Lastly, policymakers are often ‘in the room’ within networks of employers, trade unions, regulators and civil society organisations, and have a role to play in ensuring that these networks are well informed about the benefits of fair work and how this connects to a well-functioning society and economy and are encouraged to direct their attention and resources towards the delivery of fair work. Specific fair work networks or ‘communities of practice’ could spread and cascade understanding of fair work across the Scottish economy. Key networks might develop fair work action priorities for their specific industry or occupation.  Wider informed social dialogue on fair work will generate insights on what works best in fair work practices, identify challenges and opportunities, and support learning on what factors facilitate or constrain fair work practice.

There is no single silver policy bullet to deliver fair work in Scotland. But across these different policy influencing mechanisms, there is potential to further embed fair work, even without employment law powers. This requires creativity and innovation, and a commitment to finding spaces and avenues of progress in relation to fair work.  None of this is easy, but it is possible – and effective policymaking has a key role to play in pushing at the boundaries of the possible in the quest to become a fair work nation.

Read Scottish Centre for Employment Research full report, Fair work policy levers in Scotland