Better Work Network: Working together to tackle low pay and in-work poverty

By Connor Stevens


06 09 2018


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Data from the 2017 London Poverty Profile paints a mixed picture for Londoners. Whilst employment participation has steadily improved across the capital – 73% of the working-age population now in employment – other indicators tell a different tale. Job insecurity is a prominent issue, with one in ten workers at risk of insecure employment through zero hours, temporary and agency contracts. On top of this, around a fifth of London workers are being paid below the London Living Wage, a much higher proportion than a decade ago. This is reflected across the rest of Britain, with just under a quarter of all workers nationally earning below the voluntary Living Wage.

Worryingly, the evidence suggests that too many workers are getting stuck or continuously cycling in and out of low pay, rather than using low paid, insecure work as a stepping stone to higher paid jobs. Recent research from the Resolution Foundation found that of those in low pay in 2006, just one in six had permanently escaped ten years later.

This trend has eroded the long-held assumption that employment offers a guaranteed route out of (and protection from) poverty. Take the proportion of Londoners in poverty that are from a working household. Over the last decade this has grown by a half, and now accounts for 58% of all those in poverty. Whilst some of this shift is down to the fall in unemployment, this means there are now 1.3 million Londoners in poverty despite living in a household where at least one person is in employment.

Addressing these challenges is essential to achieving a sustained reduction in poverty, improving living standards and delivering economic competitiveness. In addition to these potential gains, the roll-out of Universal Credit has brought a welcome focus amongst policy makers to the issue of low pay and insecurity.

Yet, despite this growing appetite, progress has remained slow for a number of reasons:

  1. Still too little is known about what works in securing progression and flexibility within the workplace;
  2. The mainstream employment and skills systems are not configured to address these issues in a joined-up way – with both focused primarily on supporting those out of work to prepare for and enter work, rather than on supporting workers to progress out of low pay;
  3. New initiatives have either been relatively small scale and light touch (like the government’s ‘in-work conditionality’ trials) or have not addressed the specific challenges set out above (for example the National Living Wage, which has given a welcome boost for the very lowest paid but does not on its own address issues around underemployment, job security and progression).

The past few years have seen a growing number of initiatives at the local and the city-region level which have sought to go further, particularly in London – for example the Step Up and Skills Escalator pilots, and most recently the Greater London Authority’s In-Work Progression programme. Each has tested new approaches to support low-paid workers to progress in their careers. However, despite the progress made at the local level, there has so far been insufficient opportunity to integrate and collaborate. This fragmentation has limited stakeholders’ capacity to learn from the growing evidence base and in turn hindered the expansion and development of further initiatives. To counter this, there is a pressing need for a co-ordinated approach to gather and share evidence and learn ‘what works’.

As a result, Learning and Work Institute and Trust for London have launched the Better Work Network, a policy and practice-based initiative dedicated to tackling the issues of low pay, underemployment and job insecurity within London and across the wider UK. The Better Work Network will meet this need through an innovative programme of research and development, bringing together existing evidence, testing ‘what works’ and sharing best practice. The initiative will also provide a coordinating role in working with and supporting policy makers, funders, employers, support providers and influencers to expand the Better Work agenda and deliver lasting change.

Connor Stevens, research manager, Learning and Work Institute