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The case for making Wales a Fair Work Nation

February 3rd 2021

In the latest of our Transforming Wales series, Helen Cunningham outlines the case for driving up fair work in Wales

Ahead of the 2021 Senedd elections, the Bevan Foundation developed a series of “asks” – the things we think the next Welsh Government should commit to and take action on. One of these is encouraging fair work. Of course, everyone can support this, right? No one wants to see more unfair work. But the actions needed to really tackle the quality, quantity and availability of fair work is where the challenge lies.

The fair work challenge

Currently, a quarter of the workforce in Wales does not earn enough for a basic standard of living. One in twenty-five is on a zero hours contract. There is a real risk that as the labour market experiences the full fallout of the pandemic, terms and conditions and pay will suffer. While union membership in Wales is the highest of any UK nation or region, it varies significantly across sectors. Some sectors recognise worker voice and are engaged in collective bargaining, but in others – often low paid sectors – it is scarce to non-existent.  For example in the accommodation and food sectors only 2.9% of workers are union members.

We know that collective bargaining between workers and employers is a critical ingredient for improving pay and conditions and health and safety in the workplace. While most powers around employment sit with the UK government, there are still important actions within the Welsh Government’s control.  Collective representation, the supply of jobs relative to the availability of workers, promotion of best practice and the enforcement of legislation are all tools available to it. We welcomed the current Welsh Government’s commitment to increasing fair work through social partnership legislation. To make it law, however, will require the next government to commit to introducing the legislation, given that it is unlikely to become law before the current Senedd is dissolved. We want to see a renewed commitment across the board to social partnership legislation that strengthens employer and employee dialogue in workplaces themselves.

A Real Living Wage Nation

Decent pay is also a key part of fair work, and we want to see Wales become a Real Living Wage Nation. Although it is not the only feature of fair work, an employer that is Living Wage accredited can be a good indication of its wider commitment to being a decent employer. Currently there are still too few public bodies in Wales that are accredited living wage employers. Measures such as the creation of a business-led network of Living Wage ambassadors across Wales could help drive up awareness and commitment to the Living Wage, as could an expectation that all public bodies become accredited Living Wage employers with the right help and support.

The economic contract is another lever available to the Welsh Government. Extending the ‘fair work’ provisions in it to cover all public sector assistance to businesses, and robust monitoring of compliance by liaising with trades unions on access to workplaces could all help drive up fair work. Awareness of fair work and employee rights is also crucial, and we advocate investment in workplace and community learning on employee rights at work and effective representation.

Taken together, these provide key actions for making fair work the norm rather than the exception. With pressure on pay and conditions ahead, driving up fair work in Wales takes on an even greater importance.

Helen Cunningham is policy and research officer and leads the Bevan Foundation’s work on economic resilience. Follow her on twitter at @cunninghamhel

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