Doing what it takes to be a Fair Work Nation

June 16, 2021

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by Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer

Last month the Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation convened a discussion with a range of policy organisations asking: ‘What next for Fair Work in Scotland?’

Access to fair work is a critical component of individual, community and societal wellbeing. This is why over the last five years the Carnegie UK Trust has pursued a programme of activity geared towards understanding the mechanisms to unlock Fair Work for more people. We have worked on this issue around the UK, and have been heartened by the depth of commitment and infrastructure allocated to Fair Work in Scotland. Yet the implementation of the Scottish Government’s ambitious Fair Work Action Plan has been incremental. We face significant economic and social challenges ahead in our recovery from coronavirus which could constrain the bandwidth available to political and business decision makers to drive forward Fair Work. And even before the pandemic struck – changing working lives and exposing long-running inequalities in access to Fair Work – more needed to be done to turn the vision for Scotland to be a Fair Work Nation by 2025 into an achievable reality.

Our event provided a space for a range of organisations with an interest in Fair Work to exchange views on the priorities, opportunities and challenges for this agenda in the next Scottish Parliamentary term.

What struck me was the extent to which the discussion focused squarely on implementation. There was much support for Scotland’s Fair Work policies, but an acute sense of an ‘implementation gap’ between rhetoric and delivery. This is not to underplay the considerable distance which has to be achieved to move any policy to implementation and impact. Nor to suggest that this dynamic is exclusive to Scotland – ‘implementation deficit disorder’ is a commonly understood feature of policy making in many jurisdictions. Scotland does, of course, also operate in a complex legislative environment for fair work, with some powers directly devolved to Scotland, others – notably employment policy – retained by the UK Government. Notwithstanding this complexity, the ambition rang out clearly in our discussion that the new Scottish Government should have a concerted focus on getting things done.

Below I’ve set out just some priorities for the Scottish Government’s Fair Work ‘to do’ list, all of which came in up in the discussion at our event.

Implement and evaluate Fair Work First. Fair Work First’ embeds the demonstration of Fair Work practices by employers as a criteria in the awarding of public sector grants and contracts to businesses. The policy is in the process of being rolled out. We need to now see it be widely implemented by public bodies in Scotland. We need to ensure that monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure employer fulfil their Fair Work commitments. And we need to ensure the policy is evaluated, to check that it is leveraging the desired results.

Move rapidly to improve conditions in social care. Social care workers have faced extraordinary pressures and health risks during the pandemic, and large numbers of this critical workforce are in stressful, low-paid and insecure work.  A number of commitments about improving working conditions in social care have been made by the Scottish Government and some important steps already taken[1], but there can be no more delay in going further. With the public purse the largest purchaser of social care, this was seen as imminently within the power of Scotland to deliver on.

Go one step further on Fair Work activities already underway. Participants recognised that Fair Work is multifaceted, and achieving Fair Work in different industrial sectors is complex and involves getting a range of different actors to do things differently. So no single intervention is going to ‘unlock’ Fair Work. With a wide-ranging Fair Work Action Plan in play to draw upon, the view was expressed that Scotland needs to go that bit further on each existing initiative to leverage the greatest possible impact – rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel or start something new.

Embed Fair Work employer behaviours with sector deals. There was a broad sense that more needs to be done to engage employers in the delivery of Fair Work – alongside recognition that the pandemic has severely impacted many businesses. Sector level recovery deals were seen as a useful potential mechanism to credibly engage businesses with a ‘something for something’ approach. This would see government and sector representatives come together to agree tailored government supports to help businesses’ pandemic recovery – alongside agreements from employers in the sector to embed Fair Work practices in their working practices and business models.

A Fair Work development agency. Building on the work of the Fair Work Convention, there was appetite for a dedicated body which could act as a delivery arm for Fair Work and a ‘one stop shop’ for employers seeking guidance or information. Proposals for a new Centre for Workplace Transformation was announced by the Scottish Government last year – could delivery on Fair Work be core to this new body’s function?


[1] Prior to the pandemic, the Scottish Government had been advancing action to improve the provision of Fair Work in social care, including through a funding settlement with local government that aims to ensure that social care workers are paid the Living Wage (was followed by a Coronavirus funding boost). The Scottish Government has also created a Fair Work in Social Care Implementation Group, and has a manifesto commitment towards creating a National Care Service, as part of implementing wide-reaching reforms recommended for the social care sector in last year’s independent Feeley Review.