By Jamie Hepburn
Access to good quality jobs is one of the defining social, economic and political challenges of our times. Many of the political upheavals we see are directly related to people’s fears that there won’t be opportunities for them in the workplace.
The recent fair work debate in the Scottish Parliament showed the majority of MSPs are progressive in their thinking about work in Scotland in the 21st century. While there may be different views on how it might be achieved, we agree that fair work is central to our country’s ambitions for economic success which is shared across our society.
We cannot build a future based on a race to the bottom in terms of how workers are treated. Our businesses cannot capitalise on their competitive advantages without a workforce which has a stake in success. We will miss huge opportunities if we do not harness the talents of our entire working age population, irrespective of gender, age, race or any other characteristic.
Scotland’s economy continues to show strength with high employment and low unemployment figures. However, for many people, their experience of work is not always positive and having a job does not mean escaping poverty. For some on low pay or in precarious employment it is impossible to plan for the future.
Brexit continues to be the biggest threat to our economy, investment and living standards in Scotland. The prospect of being taken out of the world’s biggest single market will inevitably reduce opportunities. That is why we continue to press the UK Government to commit to remaining in the European single market and customs union and ensure our young people continue to have the opportunities currently open to them.
Brexit also poses a wider threat, with the prospect that hard-won employment rights could be removed. The Scottish Government strongly opposes any such move.
We established a Fair Work Convention in 2015 which produced a framework for use by organisations to embed fair work in what they do. The Government itself was the first in the UK to become an accredited Living Wage employer. We are also the best performing of all four UK countries in terms of the the workforce paid at least the Living Wage. There are now over 1,100 Scots-based Living Wage accredited employers, proportionately five times more than the rest of the UK.
Over the last three years more than 460 businesses have committed to fair work through the Scottish Business Pledge. We want to build on that and will be conducting a short review of the Pledge, focused on attracting greater business buy-in and impact.
It’s crucial that we address barriers to getting people into work. Our Workplace Equality Fund is helping employers overcome workplace inequalit, while work through enhanced Modern Apprenticeships and the New Independent Living Fund Scheme will help reduce the disability employment gap by at least half.
Our Race Equality Action Plan will work with stakeholders to agree baselines, measures and targets for ethnic minority communities who face disadvantage in the labour market. We are equally determined to reduce gender inequality and improve the position of women in the workplace. Scotland’s full-time gender pay gap is at 6.6%, below the UK-wide figure of 9.1%, and down from 16.7% in 11.9% in 2007.
The direction of travel is encouraging but the the gender pay gap remains unacceptable. We are driving efforts to reduce the gap across all sectors by transforming early learning and childcare, taking measures to challenge pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and funding returners’ programmes.
We are encouraging greater transparency in reporting the gender pay gap in public bodies we have responsibility for, reducing the threshold for them having to publish information to 20 employees or more, down from the 150 we had in place, and well below the UK Government’s statutory 250.
In recognition of the critical role that trade unions play in the fair work agenda, and as our valued partners, last month we announced an extra £250,000 to promote better working practices through the Trade Union Fair Work and Modernisation Fund, and £100,000 towards the STUC’s Fair Work: Leadership and Equality Programme.
Importantly we will develop and publish a Fair Work Action Plan this year and host a fair work congress, so we can receive input from the widest range of experts. Part of our plan will look at public funding and how it can better support businesses that show fair work practices.
Each and every one of these actions is crucial in ensuring that every person, regardless of background, has access to quality education, training and support into employment.
Jamie Hepburn is the Minister for Employability and Training.