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Fair Work in the time of the Pandemic: security

By Patricia Findlay - Posted on 22 April 2020

In the first of a series of three blog posts, Professor Patricia Findlay speaks about fair work and workplace practices in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

We've long argued that fair work is really important - for employees, businesses, employers and the Scottish economy as a whole. It doesn’t stop being important in a public health crisis – arguably it becomes more important.

At SCER, we’ve researched these issues for a long time, and much of that research has informed what we see as Fair Work in Scotland. In the Fair Work Convention’s Fair Work Framework, we’ve defined fair work as work that delivers effective voice, security, opportunity, fulfilment and respect. So those five key dimensions tell us what fair work looks like. Importantly, fair work also balances the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees (making sure that the best ‘mutual gains’ solution or outcome can be achieved), and given this emphasis on mutual gains, fair work should and can benefit everyone.

Each of those five dimensions of fair work raises topical issues in the current crisis. For today’s post, perhaps the most obvious place to start is in thinking about security.


Furloughing is something we’ve heard a lot of over the last few weeks, and the issue of furloughing speaks clearly to the security dimension of fair work. There’s a lot of research that tells us security and stability in terms of your employment, the hours you have to work and income you receive, are really very important to people. Globally, security of employment and income is arguably the most important thing to people in work and employment. It’s certainly a very important part of fair work. Not all of the labour force are facing the same implications for security of employment and income during this crisis. So we have seen quite widespread discussion of the severe challenges facing the self-employed or more casualised workers – gig-economy workers, workers who are on insecure contracts, for example, or those with minimum hours contract who normally work more hours. For people who are self-employed, we’ve seen some policy measures brought in to support them by the UK government, but we know that there are gaps in that provision, through which some self-employed people will fall - if they’ve been self employed for less than a year or been employed and self-employed in the course of a year – so these people are facing real challenges in terms of their income security, and this will impact on key areas, such as construction – or specific groups of people, such as younger people who tend to face a higher level of contractual insecurity than older people.

We know precarious workers have a series of other characteristics in their work that aren’t consistent with fair work. As well as being insecure, they are often low paid and are less likely to access training support and development that others (in less precarious work) can access. In terms of sectors, we’d be looking at retail, hospitality, tourism, there’ll be lots of workers affected by falling demand (shops, bars have closed. In other sectors, the challenges are different - we know that many delivery drivers, for example, are now undertaking essential tasks such as delivering groceries, but others whose activities are not essential to the economy or society at this point in time might feel obliged by economic necessity to keep on working, and this could pose a risk to their own health and well-being or contribute to the spread of the virus. So this group occupies a particularly important category that’s facing challenges.

There are, of course, many people who are continuing to work and earn, either because they’re essential workers and still carrying out that work, or because they’re able to work from home. They might be facing fewer difficulties in terms of their own employment and income security at least in the short term, but clearly they’ll face challenges in terms of the other fair work aspects.

But we only need to see the uptake in universal credit applications to realise the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown, and the scale of the shock to businesses and to large numbers of people. When it comes to furloughed workers, it’s undoubtedly helpful in terms of security and fair work that there is support from the government to help businesses ensure people can receive an income even if business can’t continue operations or if people can’t fulfil their normal job role. But there are other privations or difficulties that people face when they’re not working, in terms of isolation or keeping their skills up to date, for example, and furloughing doesn’t and can’t address these – it is specifically designed to address to some extent security of income and employment. Of course another challenge is that this support is in place for people up to 80% of their income up to a maximum of £2,500 and employers are allowed to only pay 80% of that income so they don’t have to take the additional cost of that 20% of income. 

Of perhaps more concern, some employers who could take advantage of the furloughing scheme aren’t doing it. This is both curious and unhelpful from a fair work point of view, and indeed from a broader social perspective, because people who could be but aren’t being furloughed are likely to find it much more difficult to survive financially at this point in time. Those employers are leaving people to survive only on universal credit, which many argue doesn’t constitute a secure or a sufficient income, so furloughing is an important response - but employers have to choose to use it. Employers should be thinking about furloughing rather than layoffs where this is at all possible – this is what the government is encouraging firms to do, this is what firms should be doing, and this would enhance fairness at a time when that support is much needed.

These blog posts have been taken from an initial podcast which can be found here

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