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Making work a route out of poverty

December 7th 2018

What can we do to solve in work poverty in Wales? Here are Steffan Evans’ reflections on the Bevan Foundation’s joint conference with Business in the Community, Fair Work: A Route Out of Poverty?

  

The relationship between work and poverty is a complex one. On the one hand, living in a working household significantly reduces an individual’s risk of living in poverty. Fewer than 1 in 10 working age adults, living in a home where all adults are in full time work, live in poverty, compared to over half of those living in households where there is no one in work.  On the other, being in work does not guarantee that an individual will not live in poverty. Of the 420,000 working age adults living in poverty in Wales, 250,000 (60 per cent) live in households where at least one adult is in work.

The relationship between work and poverty is one that is increasingly drawing the attention of policy makers. The Welsh Government, for example, have established a Fair Work Commission to look at some of the issues around unfair working practices in Wales. To contribute to this discussion, the Bevan Foundation recently held a joint conference with Business in the Community to look at work in Wales. Amongst the issues that were discussed at the conference were:

  • What constitutes fair work in Wales?
  • How is work currently unfair in Wales?
  • What are the solutions to these problems?

There were a number of excellent speakers at the event, including representatives from the Fair Work Commission itself with Edmund Heery and Sharanne Basham-Pyke providing valuable insight into what the commissioners are hoping to achieve through their work. A number of problems with current working practices were highlighted by the speakers throughout the day. These included the fact that some groups within Welsh society are more likely to be in unfair work, including women, disabled people and those from an ethnic minority background. Self-employed workers and those employed on part time contracts were also felt to be at a heightened risk of being in unfair work, in particular when it came to their risk of being in low income jobs.

In addition to considering some of the unfair practices around work, time was also allocated to look at solutions. A range of options were suggested by the conference speakers including encouraging more employers to pay the real living wage, greater trade union representation, more effective use of collective bargaining, and better enforcement of current legislative standards. One further solution that was proposed at the conference was for employers to improve the fringe benefits they offer their workers.

Louise Woodruff of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Jessica Rose of Business in the Community provided examples of how some employers are already providing good quality fringe benefits and how these help to tackle unfair work. Amongst the benefits that some workers are currently receiving in the UK are access to free dental care, free financial advice and rental deposit schemes. Fringe benefits such as these can help low income workers by directly reducing some of their living costs, by helping workers make better informed decisions with their money, or by providing short term assistance to workers at times of financial stress.

Improving the provision of fringe benefits is unlikely as of itself to be a solution to poverty. Indeed there were concerns raised from the floor at the conference that some employers may use the provision of such benefits as a means to draw attention away from the fact that they do not pay all their staff the real living wage. For such benefits to be part of the solution to poverty there is also a need to ensure that they are easily accessible to workers. A 20 per cent discount from an expensive high street retail store, for example, may be attractive to some workers, but, it is unlikely to be a major part of the solution to poverty if the clothes for sale are still out of the reach of low income workers even after the discount has been applied.

While the provision of good quality fringe benefits are unlikely to be a solution to poverty as of itself, encouraging more employers to provide such benefits alongside secure, well paid work, could, be an useful tool in combating the problem of in work poverty. It’ll be interesting to see whether this idea makes it through into the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission.

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