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What can Wales do about work?

November 12th 2018

As the Fair Work Commission’s consultation on ‘fair work’ draws to a close, Victoria Winckler asks if it will transform work practices or chase rainbows.

 

Fair work is something that almost everyone wants. After all, who but the most rogue employer would want work that is unfair?  But quite how to ensure work is ‘fair’ seems to be much more difficult. The Taylor Review set out some relatively cautious recommendations – it was even welcomed by the Institute of Directors – but even these modest ideas were not implemented in full. Not to be outdone, the Welsh Government has set off on its own pursuit of fair work.

‘Fair work’ in Wales appears to have had something of a troubled start.

The First Minister announced the creation of a Fair Work Board as long ago as March 2017. Six months later, Julie James AM provided Assembly Members with an update, still referring to the Board’s work in the future tense.  After making what Ms James later described as ‘good initial progress’, the Fair Work Board seems to have run into the long grass. A year on from his first announcement, the First Minister unveiled a new variant, a Fair Work Commission. Three months later, the new Commission finally came into being, with a rather different membership to the Board. After another three months, the Commission has issued a consultation paper that is ‘ an early stage request for input to help the Commission formulate its proposals and shape the recommendations it will make to Ministers.’  Hardly impressive progress.

But despite these teething troubles, the Fair Work Commission has potential to make a real difference to the working lives of thousands of people in Wales. We’re exploring these issues further at our major conference on 3rd December, organised with Business in the Community,  at which two of the Commissioners will speak along with other leading experts on ‘fair work’.

Ahead of the insights from that event, it seems to me that the Fair Work Commission has two fundamentally tricky issues to deal with.  The first is what is fair work?

What is Fair Work?

The Fair Work Commission has made defining fair work one of its first tasks. In the consultation it says:

At its most basic, promoting and encouraging fair work aims to eliminate unlawful and unfair employment practice

This seems to me to muddle up two different ideas about fair work. Work that is unlawful should simply not be tolerated, full-stop. Work that is ‘unfair’ on the other hand is perfectly legal but has an adverse affect on an employee’s health, standard of living and ability to sell his or her labour freely. Think zero-hours contracts or clauses banning working for another employer.  But what is fair work to you might not be fair work to a company boss or a DPD driver.  For the latter, secure hours or a paid break might be ‘fair’, to the  boss it might be a whopping bonus.

As we have seen so many times with Welsh Government ambitions, the stumbling block is precision over what exactly they want to achieve. As we have said so many times before, if the government isn’t about its goals, it is impossible to target action to achieve them or hold the government to account.

What can be done?

The second tricky issue is even more difficult – what can the Welsh Government do to ensure work is fair? Employment rights are not of course a devolved issue, with any ambiguity removed by the Wales Act 2017.

The various Ministerial Statements and the Fair Work Commission itself point to public procurement. This is fast becoming the mechanism of the day, charged with not only revitalising flagging local economies but also sorting out workplace problems as well and who knows what else besides.

The risk of relying on public procurement is that it doesn’t reach those areas that are not procured by public bodies nor in receipt of Welsh Government grants. Ironically, some of the sectors where unfair work is most likely to be found – food processing, accommodation and hospitality, warehousing and transport to name a few. We might get a lot of fanfare about fair work, but there is a question about how many workers’ lives it will improve.

All these issues and more will be discussed at the conference on December 3rd. The Fair Work Commission will be listening as well as speaking, and so if you want to be heard then why not come along?  It’s very competitively priced and there’s even a discount for Bevan Foundation supporters and Business in the Community members too!

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. 

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