Understanding whether local employment charters could support fairer employment practices: Research Briefing Note

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Abstract

Employment charters are voluntary initiatives that attempt to describe ‘good’ employment practices and to engage and recognise those employers that meet or aspire to meet these practices. They can operate at different spatial scales, ranging from international and national accreditation schemes to local charters that focus on engaging employers in specific regions or cities. The latter are the focus of this briefing paper. At least six city-regions in England had local employment charters at the time of our research. These areas alone account for over a fifth (21 per cent) of the resident working-age population (based on ONS 2022 population estimates), highlighting the potential reach and significance of these voluntary initiatives in terms of setting employment standards, although the number of employers directly accredited with local schemes is still relatively small.

Despite their popularity with policymakers, there is only limited research on local employment charters. A few studies have explored issues relating to the design, implementation and evaluation of charters, reflecting demand from policymakers for toolkits and support to develop local policy initiatives (e.g. Crozier, 2022). But several years into the implementation of some of these charter initiatives, and as more areas look to develop their own, we argue that it is time to revisit some more foundational questions around what local charters are for, and how far they can support ‘good work’ agendas. It remains to be seen which employers can and will engage substantively with these initiatives, how employer commitments might be validated and the good employment criteria enforced, and how local charters will be integrated with local authority commissioning and procurement practices (TUC, 2022).

The local charters that have emerged so far within the UK have been conceived predominantly as employer engagement tools, adopting language and approaches designed to appeal to employer interests and priorities and emphasising the value that employers can derive from being part of the initiative. This contrasts with approaches emphasising the engagement of other constituents, like citizens and employees, as a route to influencing employer engagement (Scott, Baylor and Spaulding, 2016; Johnson, Herman and Hughes, 2022).

This briefing paper shares findings from a scoping study involving key informants in the North West of England (2022-2023) which explored how local charter initiatives could influence employers to improve their employment practices. Participants in the study shared their views on:

1) How voluntary local employment charters could influence employers to change
their employment practices?

2) What types of employers local charters could engage and influence?

Alongside this study, we have also developed a series of case studies of the charters that have been introduced across six city regions in England. These encompass the Fair Work Standard (London); Good Employment Charter (West of England); Good Work Pledge (North of Tyne Combined Authority); Fair Employment Charter (Liverpool City Region Combined Authority); Good Employment Charter (Greater Manchester) and the Fair Work Charter (West Yorkshire Combined Authority). The case studies are published separately.

Our conversations with policymakers, union representatives and campaigners indicate that while there are some potential ‘win-win’ outcomes from promoting good employment practices, there are also some key tensions that should be more clearly acknowledged. In particular, one point of divergence relates to what would be the most effective and meaningful way to engage with employers in order to secure improvements in employment practices. On the one hand, employment charter initiatives could set consistent, clear and relatively high standards of practice that employers could be required to meet from the outset, creating a clear dividing line between those employers who were engaged in some way with the initiative and those who are not. On the other, these initiatives could prioritise engaging as many employers as possible with few or no specific red lines (e.g. around paying the living wage) so that the charter provides an opportunity to work with employers to secure hopefully more substantive commitments down the road.

There are challenges and trade-offs associated with both of these viewpoints. One problem with the former strategy of setting a consistent standard is that the principles of employment that the charter promotes may not be particularly stretching in some sectors, or indeed may only describe a minimum set of commitments for certain types of work; whilst in other sectors they may be viewed as being too stringent. A more incremental, flexible strategy of engaging
with employers and working with them to change their employment practices, in contrast, relies on sustained commitment from both policymakers and employers. Whether charters can simultaneously offer a ‘safe space’ to employers to share information and change their practices whilst also operating in a more regulatory way appears as a fundamental tension in existing visions for these initiatives. We return to these different views on how to engage employers and secure change in the conclusion to this paper.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherThe University of Manchester, Work and Equalities Institute
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - May 2024

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