September 12, 2016 : Ruth Boyle

Scottish Labour Market strategy disappoints

Opportunity missed to promote a modern, flexible approach to our working lives

The Scottish Government’s Labour Market Strategy makes for disappointing reading.

It uses the phrase ‘inclusive, sustainable growth’, which lacks any clarity, and yet is routinely bandied around without question. This rhetoric needs to be replaced with a clear and practical way of doing things that people can both understand and engage with.

Such buzzwords are a nod to alternative economic priorities outside traditional concerns, such as GDP growth. Continually reiterating these catchphrases won’t produce real improvements for marginalised groups of people affected by poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

A better approach would have placed human rights at the centre of strengthening Scotland’s future job market. Rather than being the abstract concept many would have you believe, human rights actually represent the fundamental freedoms and entitlements everyone needs in order to live a dignified life.

Human rights in employment, along with support in unemployment, are formally protected by the UN Declaration and the European Convention of Human Rights, both of which enshrine dignity and respect.

If the Scottish Government wants to demonstrate its opposition to the repeal of the Human Rights Act, then it should recognise the practical value of these rights in policy-making. Adopting the terminology of equality but failing to prioritise the means of achieving it is not good enough.

The new strategy remains fixed on the needs of the overall economy at the cost of the rights of individuals. Until we break from traditional conceptions of the labour market, marginalised groups will remain disadvantaged.

That being said, while many of the projects outlines in the strategy are welcome, they do little to help those who cannot work or are furthest from the labour market, to fulfil their human right to participate in society.

A human rights approach would have focused on the capabilities of individuals, informed by the awareness that ‘skills’ are not just about employment, but societal good, community advancement and wellbeing.

‘Work’ need not mean ‘jobs’ in the traditional paid sense. Unpaid work in the home along with community activities that advance our collective prosperity and individual wellbeing, should be valued too.

The inclusion of volunteering and community participation would have been the mark of a modern labour market strategy. This would have sent a message that Scotland was moving away from outdated understandings of employment and promoted a modern, flexible approach to our working lives.

A human rights-based approach to workplace rights extends beyond directives guaranteeing working hours and maternity rights.

As part of the fair work agenda, the Scottish Government should promote personalised in-work support and encourage employers to understand the unique barriers individuals face in sustaining employment.

Employers should be encouraged to take a human rights-based approach by involving employees in discussions about their working hours and work-loads.

Then there is continued occupational segregation and the over-representation of men in leadership roles. Employers should be highlighting the importance of flexible working at all levels of employment in promoting the full participation of women in the labour market.

It’s clear that a greater focus on the rights of individuals would have be an excellent move, one that puts people at the heart of employability and economic growth in Scotland.

The promotion of human rights should be an aim in and of itself, but there should be buy-in from business too. The benefits here are obvious: when the wellbeing of the workforce is prioritised, through flexible working and the promotion of a healthy work/life balance, the workforce is more productive.

A healthy and happy population makes for a more receptive consumer base too. So it’s a win-win.

The right to participate in the labour market should be a gateway for securing other human rights, including the right to decent housing, adequate levels of nutritious food and your highest standard of attainable physical and mental health.

Instead of promoting these rights, the strategy we have is geared toward those who are already closest to the labour market. This means that people who are experiencing barriers to employment are once again ignored.

Scotland needs a labour market strategy that promotes equality, wellbeing and participation through a human rights framework. Vague, shallow proposals are not enough to promote a labour market based on equal opportunity, employment rights and equality.

SCVO is currently exploring human rights-based approaches in the third sector through our #RightApproach campaign.

This blog was first published as a column in the Herald.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Ruth Boyle