Monday, 13 October 2014

Decent Work Dignified Lives: But what do we mean by decent work?

On the 18th October the STUC is organising a March and Rally in Glasgow under the strap line ‘Decent Work, Dignified Lives: Scotland needs a Pay Rise’ which adds to a national day of action across the UK. Coming as it does in ‘challenge poverty week’ a key message coming out of this march is around the need to raise pay and benefit levels and ensure a good level of income for people in Scotland.

However, we haven’t simply called our march ‘Scotland needs a Pay Rise’ instead we have talked about the need for ‘Decent Work’. This term isn’t simply a nice catch phrase, it speaks to a much wider concept that incorporates, but goes beyond, rates of pay and looks instead more widely at social justice issues and how the labour market functions.

‘Decent Work’ is a meaningful term that is used in international treaties and is underpinned by concepts developed by the UN and International Labour Organisation to improve workers lives and the functioning of the global economy and contributes to the fight to eradicate poverty.

The International Labour Organisation describes ‘Decent Work’ in the following way:

“Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

In this way Decent Work is not simply work that pays enough for people to escape poverty but is work which is safe, which is regular and can be relied upon, thus removing the stress of imminent job loss or irregular hours. It is work that offers development and training opportunities, where workers can organise and where workplace democracy exists in a meaningful way, allowing workers a degree of autonomy and control around decisions that affect their every day working lives.

The concept of decent work underpins the Millennium Development Goals particularly MDG1: “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. In the past much of the work and the focus in this area has been directed at the extreme abuse and hardship that we see in the developing world, however, with attention turning to the Post-2015 Development Agenda there is a concerted effort to place ‘Decent Work’ front and centre in the drive to eradicate extreme poverty, but also to take a broader view of where the ‘Decent Work’ agenda applies, including within more developed economies.

It is clear that much could be done to improve the UK economy and the way the labour market functions. Across our economy we have seen a number of worrying developments: growth in insecure work, including zero hours contracts, out-sourcing, and an increase in agency work; wages for the lowest paid either falling or stagnating, while wages at the top of the income spectrum continue to grow; enforcement around the minimum wage practically non-existent; enforcement of health and safety rules increasingly under-threat; and anti-trade union laws designed to restrict activity and limit workplace democracy and the coverage of collective bargaining agreements.

Many of these issues existed within our economy before the global crisis of 2008 and whilst this crisis and subsequent austerity pursued with vigour by the UK Government have exacerbated the inequalities in our labour market, and increased the plight of working people, and those struggling to find work, many of the building blocks for an economy focused on low road economic outcomes rather than high road ‘Decent Work’ objectives have been in place for some time.

The two graphs below give some idea of how workers were fairing in our economy even before the economic crash, the first showing wages as a proportion of GDP from 1955 to 2008 and the second showing the growth in weekly earnings for workers at different points of the income distribution scale from 1970 to 2010. Taken together these graphs paint a worrying picture of how our economy functions, and give some idea of how we find ourselves in a situation where workers are turning to ‘pay day loan’ companies or foodbanks, and why even if we do begin to see the economy recover, things need to change for workers to benefit.

GB weekly earnings, full-time employees, constant 2009 prices, controlled for RPI inflation, £ per week

Source Resolution Foundation analysis, ONS, ASHE, indexed using RPI

The STUC’s work on the referendum, ‘A just Scotland,’ helped put issues of social justice front and centre in the debate about the sort of Scotland that we want to see. For us, this debate was never going to end with the casting of votes on the 18th September, but rather remains a rallying point for all on the left and a challenge to kept working and striving towards the sort of country where ‘Decent Work’ for all is a reality. Indeed we are running a major conference on the 15 October which will look at issues of how our economy functions and will pick up on ideas embedded within the ‘Decent Work’ agenda.

The ‘Decent Work, Dignified Lives’ march on the 18th October is a focal point for all those who want to create a Just Scotland, tackle poverty and put ‘Decent Work’ at the heart of the political agenda. More information on attending the march can be found here.

Helen Martin

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