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

6 September 2018

Data from the 2017 London Poverty Profile paints a mixed picture for Londoners. Whilst employment participation has been steadily improving across the capital – with 73% of the working-age population now in employment – indicators of work quality tell a different tale. The profile found that one in ten workers are at risk of insecure employment through zero hours, temporary and agency contracts, whilst 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 rather than using low paid, insecure work as a stepping stone to higher paid jobs, far too many workers are getting stuck or continuously cycling in and out of low pay. 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 route out of and protection from poverty. Over the last decade, the proportion of Londoners in poverty living in a working household has grown by a half, accounting for 58% of all those living in poverty – that’s 1.3 million people.

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, and particularly in London – including 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
Researcher, Learning and Work Institute


If you are interested in shaping policy around low pay and progression and would like to find out more about the Better Work Network and our ongoing programme of research and development, visit our webpage or sign up to our mailing list.

Contact the Better Work Network team at [email protected].