Employment charters - an opportunity for local leadership on employment issues?

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Looking back to 2012 and the ‘early days’ of city devolution in England, it is clear that the issue of employment standards was not especially central to the devolution agenda at the outset. In 2018 that is beginning to change. Good work is increasingly seen as crucial to both economic and social policy priorities and the election of metro mayors in some city regions has created an opportunity for local leadership on this issue.

Local employment charters have been identified as one means to advance employment issues locally. These are voluntary initiatives that set out to describe good employment practices and recognise those employers that adopt them, and there is considerable interest in them from the new cohort of metro mayors. Liverpool, Greater Manchester and London – among others – are all in the process of developing charter proposals. 

But to what extent can these voluntary employment charters help to address the skills and employment challenges affecting these areas? We have taken a closer look at some charter initiatives in the UK with the aim of understanding their scope and potential. Our work examines several existing charters adopted by local councils, Local Enterprise Partnerships and campaigning groups. We find that in the grand scheme of things, local charter initiatives tend to be small-scale and often lack the resource needed to engage employers and support them to change what they offer to their employees. But there is considerable scope to learn from these examples and to try different approaches. 

To start with, there are important questions for each area to answer about the proposed purpose, scope and resource available for these initiatives. Another important consideration is how they fit with other local and national efforts to create more meaningful, fair employment for all, including national charters or standards such as the Living Wage Foundation’s accreditation scheme.

It is important to think through what it is that a charter initiative is meant to achieve from the beginning because the purpose of a charter has a bearing on its design, and on where and how resources are used. The devil will be in the detail. For example, the success of a charter that takes seriously the issue of low pay might be judged mainly in terms of the number of employers it engages in low pay sectors, or the number of low paid employees that it directly benefits. Or if the main aim of a charter is to support all employers to adopt better employment practices, then it is particularly important to build in time and resource to work with employers to understand their current employment practices and get a conversation going about what they might work on. All this takes resource, and time.

What would a local employment charter supporting workplace learning and skills look like? Readers of this blog will be better placed to answer this than many others. Most of the employment charters we reviewed included broad ‘skills’ commitments, including asking employers to commit to engaging with the council’s employment and skills services, or to creating training and employment opportunities for NEETs, or lone parents. Is this the kind of commitment that should feature in the ‘next generation’ of city charters? Would a local charter be a good means to engage employers in wider campaigns, such as the UNISON Apprenticeship Charter?  And is there scope to bring in more specific commitments that respond to the challenges facing people in different cities? With charters in development in several areas, now is a good time to speak up.

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Ceri Hughes

Ceri Hughes is a Research Associate in the Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit at the University of Manchester. The Unit is jointly funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the University of Manchester with the aim of ensuring that poverty reduction is central to processes of economic growth and devolution in Greater Manchester.

In this blog Ceri looks at local employment charters and the potential for unions to use them to engage with employers around learning and skills.