What does ‘voice’ mean for the millions of UK employees who live in poverty?

By Louise Woodruff – Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The face of poverty in the UK has changed – the majority of people who live in poverty now live in households where at least one person is working. 3.8 million workers lived in a household in poverty in 2014/15, up by around a million people since 2004/05. What is the relevance of discussions about the future of voice for employees working on low pay, in insecure work and struggling to make ends meet at home? Take a home care worker on the National Living Wage who visits numerous vulnerable clients per day and rarely meets their manager; or a retail employee on a zero-hours contract who cannot predict their income from week-to-week and hears about their shifts by text; or a cleaner who is juggling split shifts between caring for their children and their parents. What does having a meaningful voice at work mean to them?

Initially, employee voice may seem less of a priority for tackling in-work poverty - it’s more important to focus on improving the core elements of low paid jobs such as pay, in-work progression, job security and family friendly working. There are many examples of employers in the retail, hospitality, social care and facilities sectors who indeed demonstrate good practice and are good places to work. This includes good quality, continuous training, well-developed progression routes and generous employee benefits schemes. So these are not impossible asks despite business pressures. But we shouldn’t ignore the role that employee voice can have in really creating the good jobs that can make a real difference to people’s lives.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and from Oxfam tells us a lot about what low paid employees think employers need to do to make work better. Not surprisingly, hourly pay rate was the top priority across both studies. In focus groups conducted for JRF, initiatives that could mean greater security outside work were considered more helpful than jobs-focused ones. The researchers found that low paid, low income workers often had a purely functional relationship with their jobs. However, employees did welcome initiatives which enhanced internal communications, including informal channels such as social media. Employee insight can help employers understand the challenges for their low paid employees, but crucially can also help to improve job design and employee reward. In fact, there is also evidence that improving jobs can lead to better engagement: employers who have implemented the voluntary Living Wage report improved staff morale and relationships with employees.

Whilst new technologies present innovative opportunities for employee engagement, we need to make sure they do not exclude some employees from having a voice. We know there is a problem with digital skills in the UK. Many employees in low paid, low skilled sectors do not use an internet-enabled device as part of their day-to-day work. Employers can’t expect engagement activities to take place outside paid working hours. They need to ensure that staff have the time, access and skills to be able to engage; even if that engagement is optional. This investment is important if employers want to capture a wide range of voices – not just those who are more digitally-savvy.

The thorny problem is, of course, the employers who do not provide good quality jobs are perhaps also more likely to ignore or even supress employee voice. These employers need more challenge from regulators, trade unions, consumers and commissioners. We also need to recognise the challenges for employee voice and engagement as the labour market changes. What is the future of voice for the growing number of low paid agency workers and those working in the gig economy? The Taylor Review of Modern Employment is an opportunity for a better consensus of what society considers decent work.

We can’t solve the UK’s in-work poverty problem without addressing what happens in the workplace: improving the quality and security of jobs, raising pay and tackling underemployment for those who want to work more hours. Employers, particularly those in the traditionally low paying sectors, have a vital role to play too – better employee engagement is one of many steps to improving the quality of jobs. Last September, JRF published a landmark strategy setting out how we can solve poverty in the UK. It is an ambitious task, but we believe if governments, business, communities and individuals work together, it can be done.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.