Just Work: fairness and justice at work in Greater Manchester

JUST WORK: Constructing decent work and labour standards in Greater Manchester.

The project ran from 2015-2019. The project applicants were Damian Grimshaw, Helge Hoel, Miguel Martinez Lucio, Jill Rubery.  The researchers were Mat Johnson (Key Researcher), Jo Cartwright, Laura Watt, and Robyn Jelley. The research team also consisted of Tony Dundon, Debra Howcroft, Sheena Johnson, Marti Lopez Andreu, Francine Morris, Stephen Mustchin, Jenny Rodriguez (Lindsay Endell was the administrator). Sajia Ferdous, Holly Smith, and Eva Harman were active PhD students engaged in the project through their financing.

map of Greater Manchester

This inter-disciplinary, multi-method research programme analysed the challenges facing the development and maintenance of ‘just work’ or ‘decent work’ in the UK, specifically in the Greater Manchester area. Existing research highlights five major challenges:

  1. Labour market reforms reducing the security of employment relations and increasing employer prerogatives;
  2. New technologies polarising labour markets with labour substitution, deskilling, and ‘winner takes all’;
  3. Effects of the radical reshaping of the UK’s social model on gender, sexuality, disability and age, including welfare, citizenship and pension rights;
  4. Multiple new forms of conflict, harassment, discrimination and unfair practices; and
  5. New insecurities and inequalities caused by the fragile positioning of many UK businesses in global value chains.

This research contests the idea that against a backdrop of changing regulatory, economic, political and technological conditions, new social contracts in the UK workplace are generating productive, dignified and sustainable work ‒ ‘just work’ ‒ in the long term. The project aimed to research how the local regulatory environment facilitates and interacts with private employer initiatives to extend decent work initiatives.


Key words: Work, Fairness, Regulation, Locality, Labour Markets, Social Inclusion

Core findings

Through interviews with over 160 individuals we found that

  • many workers are increasingly isolated and marginalised due to fragmentation and dualism in the local labour market;
  • new forms of individualised and ‘flexible’ employment are leading to an increasingly divided workforce which trade unions and other social/voluntary groups find more difficult to represent;
  • employers and managers form an increasingly fragmented constituency whose engagement with the local labour market and social initiatives is limited (even employer organisations such as Business in the Community seem to be engaging in a limited manner); and
  • attempts by local regulatory bodies such as GMCA to establish innovative new labour standards, employment charters or social inclusion initiatives are adversely affected by financial austerity and limited central government funding.

Our examination of ‘just’ and ‘dignity’-based approaches to work highlights the gap between the rhetoric of social inclusion and the reality at local level.  However, there are a range of initiatives and actors engaging with the need to ‘upgrade’ work in terms of working standards and questions of dignity – these are innovating in a variety of ways.  The myriad of initiatives and interventions mirror a new type of state role based on a multiple set of interweaving projects and actors that can create new ways of including the most vulnerable into the labour market.

Innovative research and impact

Coordination of individual areas of specialism, together with work on specific cases, enabled the wide-ranging team to develop critical management and organisation skills. A variety of insights was generated through the combination of semi-structured and unstructured interview techniques: there were formal interviews with experts and organisational leaders alongside more flexible group discussions with marginalised workers. Insights were also gained into organisations as diverse as the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations (GMCVO), NW TUC, independent/minority unions, and local councils, as well as senior and HR managers and ‘welfare to work’ professionals. There were elements of participatory research in some part of the project. The mutual sharing of our insights and local network knowledge has helped develop the basis for further work. In addition, a new set of projects and initiatives has developed from this research. Key Researcher Mat Johnson successfully applied to UKRI for a circa £1million grant to study the significance of metropolitan authorities as key anchors for developing decent work practices. Local labour representation at metropolitan authority level is an important aspect of civil society sustainability for those who are studying new forms of local regulation, including the Just Work project. Through further reviews of the dataset we aim to explore perceptions of ‘just’ work and the meaning of decent work through various initiatives. A close working relation was established with labour market social inclusion bodies such as the GMCA’s Working Well, an organisation that assists the marginalised workforce back into employment. Links have been established with GMCA personnel working to develop local employment charters. Links have also been cemented with the GMCVO, other local community groups and trade union groups (the General Secretary of NW TUC, senior UNITE officers and others).

Publications and reports

Our work has been presented to the City Council at a Working Well event in 2018, to the BUIRA annual conferences 2018 and 2019, to the Fairness at Work 2018 Annual Conference (four papers on different dimensions of the project), to the 2018 ILO Decent Work Cities event in Seoul (South Korea), to the 2019 ILO Regulating Decent Work conference, and at various seminars and events within AMBS and others. A full list is available on request.

We have also written two extensive major reports which have been available on the WEI website.  Our academic contribution includes five papers currently in progress and expected to be submitted by January 2020: new forms of flexible work in Media City; the challenges of new welfare-to-work initiatives; challenges facing local government in supporting decent work approaches in the labour market; the nature and impact of local council restructuring on its workforce; and the experiences of marginalised and disabled workers in a more fragmented labour market.

In terms of non-academic impact, we are engaging with Working Well (see above), Oldham Council, GMCA, the NW TUC, and various trade unions on the challenges for the local economy and labour market of generating fairness at work in a context of labour market fragmentation.