Decent work in time of Covid: policy implications and challenges for the Midlands

External organisations involved:

Department for Work and Pensions, ACAS Midlands, Staffordshire County Council, Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, the Vine Trust Group, TUC Midlands, Birmingham City Council, University of Birmingham, Shrewsbury College Group, Stoke-on-Trent YMCA

Grant: Research England Policy Priority QR Funding 2020/21, £13,723

Duration: December 2020 – March 2021



This collaborative project explores the decent work policy implications and challenges for the Midlands in response to the current coronavirus crisis. The goal is to create novel opportunities for a better understanding of the perspectives of key stakeholders on decent work policy development, and to discuss, share and exchange inclusive recovery policies on jobs and income that will benefit the sustainable growth in the region. In line with the Keele Deal Recovery and Keele Deal Inclusion initiatives, the project will establish a Midlands decent work policy development platform to facilitate debates, dialogues and knowledge sharing activities. It will see the co-creation of a policy forum and a policy workshop that will not only facilitate knowledge exchange between higher education institutions, policy making/implementing communities, businesses and civil societies, but also improve the University’s impact on policy areas through partnership and public engagement. A report will be produced for government to consider for a clearer development of decent work policies in light of the Covid recovery needs for the region.

Decent work and sustainable, inclusive development

Access to decent work is an important goal for policymakers as decent work is a priority for many employers and policy makers seeking to promote social justice (Dodd et al. 2019). Promoting decent work is at the heart of the UN 8th Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Decent Work and Economic Growth which is aimed at advocating sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent job for all (ILO 2020). Decent work comprises opportunities for people to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity (ILO 1999). To achieve decent work, reasonable working conditions are essential for promoting workers’ fundamental rights on health and safety, fair income, physical and mental integrity, individual development and social integration, empowerment, and equal opportunities. All of these need to be safeguarded by appropriate policies, regulations and institutions.

Despite the high level of employment rate in the UK, the country’s labour market has been undermined by a declining work quality, growing precarity and uncertainty, an increase of zero-hour contracts, and a lack of worker’s rights in the gig economy (Taylor et al. 2017). Following the 2017 Taylor Review, it was evident that the government needed to improve labour market policies to support job security and decent work. As a result, a 2018 UK government policy paper ‘Good Work Plan’ was published and committed to a wide range of policy and legislative changes to ensure that “workers can access fair and decent work” (BEIS 2018). At the heart of the government pledge was the promotion of fair and decent work in line with the Industrial Strategy which is aimed at boosting UK productivity through improving quality of work, job satisfaction, fair pay, participation and progression, well-being, safety and security, and voice and autonomy. The government was committed to “bringing about greater clarity in the law and within employment relationships” to enhance the labour market, strengthen workers’ rights, improve employment rates, and ensure UK business to grow and innovate (BEIS 2018). But the policy implementation has been severely interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

Covid and decent work agenda in the Midlands

The sweeping Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious socioeconomic impact on the Midlands, which is among the UK regions that have been hit the hardest. By mid-November, the region had recorded 241,715 coronavirus cases and 10,392 related deaths (GOV 2020). Globally, a particularly distressing aspect of this crisis is that it is unpacking the insidious impact of inequality in society and in the workplace (Blustein et al. 2020), as Covid-19 has amplified the threats to inequalities, poverty and disparities in work and employment, which means an inclusive, rights-based and human-centred approach is essential to attenuating the consequences of the pandemic (ILO 2020). In the UK, it has been recognized that a post-Covid recovery workplace needs policy support to building better working conditions based on compassion, trust and equality in workplaces (ACAS 2020). Despite such consensus, however, policy development addressing the decent work agenda in the UK in general, and in the Midlands in particular, is slow.

The Midlands, including the West Midlands and East Midlands, is among the most vulnerable areas in the UK impacted by Covid-19. It was estimated that by the 4th quarter of 2020, around 517,000 private sector employees could lose their jobs in the Midlands, with the worst sectors including the wholesale and retail sector, accommodation and food, and admin and support sectors. A 10% reduction of employment on average is estimated (Economic Observatory 2020). Across the Midlands, there are 33% or over 1.49 million workers being furloughed (nationally 32%), with 32% of furloughed accommodation and food service workers at risk of redundancy (nationally 17%). About 77% of the local manufacturers have furloughed their workers. Although in the second half of 2020, there were some signs of a recruitment rising, businesses in the region are still concerned about the future and therefore part-time employment is the main method of responding to the uncertainties and a second lockdown in the run up to Christmas followed by continuing service restrictions will only serve to further exacerbate the situation. In September 2020, there were 428,000 unemployment benefit claimants aged 16 or over, a 102.6% increase since March. Sales in the Midlands local authorities declined by an average 13% by Q4, and investment declined by 20.2%, higher than the national average of 19.7%. There is a lack of labour market opportunities, leading to long-term unemployment and lifetime earning reduction, risk of permanent loss of skills, lower education outcomes in the next generation (Economic Observatory 2020).

Need for a clearer decent work policy

It has been suggested that the UK government should set clear definitions, targets and indicators to measure decent work outcomes, with a strong gender lens, mapping onto the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda (Bond 2019). Such development should particularly focus on actions that advance inclusion and equality and promote decent work for all, including for marginalised people, particularly women, people with disabilities and informal workers. It is also important to build the capacity of trade unions and civil society to deliver decent work for all and increase space for social dialogue (Bond 2019). This could be well received by businesses because employers can benefit from the creation of a clear, widely accepted and easily measured definition of decent work that can improve performance, as they could view responsibility for creating decent work as shared with government and other key stakeholders (Gibb and Ishaq 2016).

A recent TUC recommendation indicated that government recovery policies should address six areas: decent work, sustainable industry, a real safety net for social security, rebuilding public services, equality at work and rebuilding internationalism (TUC 2020). In particular, the TUC emphasised the essence of new business models based on fairer employment relationships with workers having a fairer share of the wealth they create, a higher minimum wage and new collective bargaining rights. To rebuild the Midlands’ economy, the TUC suggested that government must take policy action to better utilize modern technology and improve training in new skills, adopt a job guarantee scheme and better social security to prevent poverty, and to enhance the protection of vulnerable people at the workplace (TUC 2020).

The above analysis demonstrates that to respond to the coronavirus crisis and achieve a strong recovery, there is an urgent need to consider strategic policy shift towards increased investment in advocating decent work and an inclusive economy in the Midlands. Addressing the decent work policy deficit would correspond to the Midlands’ need for closing the productivity gap with the rest of the country. One key challenge is the skills gap, with the region’s GVA (gross value added) per capital only being 76% of the national average. There are significant barriers to growth of 2.4% productivity performance annually until 2030, including skills, infrastructure, R&D investment and access to finance. Efforts need to be made to train 390,000 people for an NVQ4 qualification to reach the 40.2% level in 2030 from the current 34%, improve digital skills and have a better strategy to retain graduates to consolidate a skilled workforce (Economic Observatory 2020).

Another challenge is that during the pandemic, policies and regulations on work-life balance, wellbeing and job security have been contested, with job insecurity and unemployment particularly being high, and the overall prospect for employment being weak (CIPD 2020). However, despite the government’s early labour market interventions such as the Job Retention Scheme, there is a lack of consensus between businesses, central and local governments, trade unions and other civil society organisations on how policies on decent work can help achieve a sustainable, inclusive growth in response to the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region. Because inclusive and effective policies and responses need to be grounded in reliable evidence and data (ILO 2020), a decent work policy research project involving key stakeholders in the region is needed to provide crucial evidence for the policy-making community.

Project design and methods

The main purpose of this project is to evaluate the decent work policy implications and challenges for the Midlands in light of the significant impact of the coronavirus crisis on a regional economy that covers 11 million people, 22% of England’s export capacity – the greatest share of any region, and a £239 billion annual contribution to the UK economy (Economic Observatory 2020). It will focus on the perspectives of key stakeholders, namely the government, business societies, employee associations and other public organisations associated with decent work provisions for addressing economic recovery and achieving a sustained and inclusive economic growth in the Midlands. Based on the comparative institutional analysis framework (Weber and Soderstrom 2015), the project will bring together these institutions through knowledge sharing and exchange activities, interviews, and public forums to engage with dialogues, debates and exchanges.

The adoption of the comparative institutional analysis framework would enable the research to underpin the essence of the institutional complexity of decent work provision. This analytical framework allows a more balanced evaluation of the responsibilities and responses of stakeholders and institutions towards decent work policies, offering strong evidence to inform the national and regional labour market framework, regulation, and contextual relevance of decent work policies. Key research questions to be addressed include:

- How has the Covid crisis exposed decent work challenges in the Midlands?

- For key stakeholders in the region, what are their perspectives on the current decent work policies?

- What are the main issues of the current government policies for addressing decent work concerns in the region?

- In what ways can these policies be refined or changed to help the post-Covid economic recovery?

An explorative, qualitative method (Saunders et al. 2016) will be adopted to undertake data collection between December 2020 and March 2021, involving 9 interviews, a two-day (or 14-hour equivalent) knowledge exchange activity, and a one-day decent work policy forum. Semi-structured interviews (each lasting about one hour), after gaining ethical clearance from Keele University’s Research Ethics Committee, will be conducted with 2 government officials, 3 employers/managers, 2 academics and 2 trade union officials. The knowledge exchange activity will be held in February 2021, with officials from ACAS, unions and government giving talks (online or on-site) to participants of Keele University’s MBA and

MCIL programmes on work and employment policies, labour dispute regulations, decent work provisions, and government labour market responses towards Covid. The policy forum will be held in March 2021 either online or at Keele Business School, with the speakers including both central and local government officials, representatives from regional businesses and trade unions, and academics. By attending these activities, the researchers will use note taking and participative observation methods as part of the data collection, and the outcome will be compiled into a policy recommendation report to be submitted to these stakeholders.

The project’s multidisciplinary academic team members are led by the PI Dr Xuebing Cao (XC) who has extensive experience in collaborative research on decent work and labour markets. Dr Will Foster (WF) has rich experience in CPD, leadership, knowledge exchange and public engagement. Professor Tony Dobbins (TD) is a renowned international expert in work and employment, currently the President of British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA). Our external partners include represent TUC Midlands, Staffordshire County Council, the Vine Trust and ACAS Midlands, providing strong potential for impactful outcome. Other potential partners are expected to join in the project later. We will also recruit a 3-month contract research assistant (RA) to help facilitate and/or participate interviews, knowledge exchange and policy discussion activities, as well as engaging with external partners in a frequent basis. Due to the strong interest from some external partners on co-developing public policy PhD programmes in future, recruiting the RA seems to be a valuable first step forward towards this target.

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