Guest blog: Fair Work in the Third Sector

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Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector (GCVS)

Charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises make a difference to people. They build the social fabric of communities, enriching people’s lives and standing alongside them during tough times. During Covid and our current cost of living crisis, we have seen that they are often the fastest to step up when needed. In short, the third sector is an essential partner in challenging poverty and building a fairer Scotland.

And yet, recent research that GCVS with support from Robertson Trust commissioned from Strathclyde University ‘Fair Work in the Third Sector in Scotland’ ( shows that third sector employees working on the front line to support others, are themselves at risk of poverty through low pay and insecure employment.

The challenges for the sector are stark. Job insecurity in the third sector is significantly higher than the public or private sector, only 15% of third sector employees reported secure household income that enabled saving, and many worry about what would happen if they had long term sickness.  We deserve better.

Our people are motivated by their values and their desire to make a difference, but growing demands and pressures on the sector hinder their ability to turn their vocation into the secure career it should be. This Challenge Poverty Week, I’m reflecting on the issues of fairness and the changes needed to support a thriving third sector.

We, and our colleagues in the network of Third Sector Interfaces across Scotland, speak daily with leaders in organisations big and small about the challenges impacting their work and development. Too often we hear about the pressures of increasing demand, uncertain funding streams, and rising running costs. Balancing the books has never been harder.

Fair Work in Scotland’s Third Sector

The inability to offer secure employment, and to pay staff at levels commensurate with their commitment and expertise is not a new challenge for the sector, but the cost of living crisis has brought it into focus. We must fix these issues or the sector risks being unable to attract the talent it needs. They say charity begins at home – to me that means looking after our own people so that they can look after others.

To learn more, we commissioned the Scottish Centre for Employment Research to analyse the extent of Fair Work across Scotland’s third sector, with support from The Robertson Trust. Over 650 participants, partners, and stakeholders took part to identify the opportunities and challenges for delivering against the five fundamental Fair Work principles: effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect.

The problems identified will be unsurprising to many:

  • Significantly more staff in the third sector are on temporary contracts than in the economy as a whole (27% in the third sector against 5% in the Scottish economy as a whole).
  • Despite being a well-qualified sector (two-thirds of survey respondents had degrees and higher qualifications), median pay in the third sector is c.£2k lower than the median for both Scotland and the UK;
  • Where there are comparable roles in the public sector they are too often significant disparities in income for similar roles. Over half (55%) do unpaid overtime several times a month. Over a quarter (27%) do so at least several times a week.
  • Comparison to public sector colleagues highlighted disparities in salaries for similar roles, only 40% of third sector staff felt they were fairly paid compared to others in similar jobs.

It is important to say it is far from all negative.  There are also incredibly positive findings that make clear that where achieving Fair Work is within the gift of the organisations the sector does it very well.

  • The sector is a rewarding place to work in other ways, and 88% of participants said they wee motivated by their organisation’s purpose
  • The sector has taken embedded flexible working incredibly well, and 85% said their job was designed in a way that let them manage commitments outside the workplace

As the research author, Professor Patricia Findlay, said:

“There is much to commend in the third sector’s delivery of fair work: the work is fulfilling; most staff feel respectfully treated; and there is considerable reciprocal flexibility. But there are pockets of real concern around contractual security and pay, opportunities for career (and income) progression, diversity/inclusion and the effectiveness of employee voice. The sector has a platform to build but needs closer collaboration with funders, including government, to address those areas where fair work is not delivered.”

How can we take action?

Challenge Poverty Week, launched by the Poverty Alliance in 2013, shows that collective action based on justice and compassion can create solutions. This year’s campaign week begins by asking for ‘A Scotland where we value our communities and volunteers’. We back the campaign call for fair and sustainable funding for three years and want to see further action that responds to the findings in ours and other research to identify and overcome barriers to embedding Fair Work, driving forward further improvement.

GCVS has developed twelve actions that we believe the third sector and our stakeholders should implement. Achieving this will require support from Scottish and Local Governments, other public bodies, and independent funders. Among others these include:

  • Scottish and Local Governments, funders, SCVO and TSIs continue to work together to implement Fair Funding for organisations, recognising that this is critical to achieving Fair Work.
  • Fair Funding principles should also be applied to all public sector procurement of the third sector. Commissioning and procurement practices should realise the vision of the Public Procurement Strategy.
  • The financial risks associated with the delivery of services should be shared more fairly and the sector should be more meaningfully involved in commissioning and designing public services, developing a culture of collaboration and partnership.
  • As well as a commitment across the sector to paying the Real Living Wage as the minimum, third sector organisations and the bodies that fund and commission them should work together to eliminate non-voluntary zero-hour contracts and reduce the use of fixed and short-term contracts.

The third sector is a vital part of our social fabric and critical for reaching and improving the lives of Scotland’s citizens. Our employees deserve Fair Work.


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