Good work and the disability employment gap - RSA

Good work and the disability employment gap

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    Andy Shipley FRSA
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This month RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor dedicated his annual lecture to the question “What is good work?” The lecture offers us a foretaste of the questions and issues to be explored in the government commissioned employment review he is leading, to be published in June.

Whilst it is the case that employment rates are high, attesting to successive government’s efforts to get more people into work, Matthew Taylor reminds us that “persistent scandals of bad working conditions, poor legal safeguards and job insecurity, suggest that bad work is all too common.” He points to the RSA’s latest research, in which 73% of people “think we should do more as a country to improve the quality of jobs.”

For the working disabled population, evidence suggests that the quality of life at work has deteriorated in recent years. Research undertaken by the Public Interest Research Unit (PIRU) in 2015 found the following:

  • Zero hours contracts are causing particular problems for disabled workers, including the high levels of ill-treatment associated with these contracts;
  • Unlawful discrimination, including harassment and unlawful dismissal, appears to have been increasing;
  • There has been a reduction in organisational support for disabled workers and an increased emphasis on discipline;
  • The 24 major cuts to equality and employment law protection since 2010, were starting to have an impact on disabled workers;
  • With the introduction of tribunal fees, disabled workers were finding it hard or impossible to enforce their remaining rights. 

In December 2016, the All Party parliamentary Group on disability published ‘Ahead of the Arc,’ its inquiry into the disability employment gap’.  They found that in organisations across the public and private sectors, with regards to workplace support for disabled people, access to start-up funds, business advice and business networks, evidence exists of “institutional disablism.” It also found that currently workers acquiring a disability are routinely failed on performance or health and safety grounds and managed out of the workplace. The report estimates that around 35,000–48,000 people lose their jobs this way each year.

In November 2016, the government published its “Work, health and disability green paper:  improving lives.” This identified that currently 48% of disabled people between the ages of 16 and 64 are in work, compared with 80% of the non-disabled population.

Whilst the government’s green paper expresses a welcome aspiration for the creation of healthy inclusive workplaces to become normal practice for all employers, it disappointingly contains no proposals to clamp down on the kind of bad practice and discrimination uncovered by Ahead of the Arc and the PIRU study.

The green paper confidently espouses: “Good work leads to good health, and good health allows for good work.” So what is good work?  The RSA defines good work as “fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.”  For disabled people, this could be further defined as good work is suitable and commensurate with their skills, abilities and provided on terms that meet their impairment needs. Whether disabled or non-disabled, the evidence seems pretty clear that the world of work is predominantly lacking in the conditions that facilitate such good work. This serves only to highlight all the more starkly the brutal inappropriateness of a welfare system designed to coerce disabled people into a world of work that can be best described as unprepared and unreceptive to their needs, and at worst hostile.   Since 2010, the government has implemented a raft of in-work and unemployment welfare reforms founded upon the principle of “making work pay.”  In reality however, what the term “making work pay” has largely meant, so far, is the reconfiguring of  the welfare system into a vehicle to drive disabled people into employment.  In the seven years during which successive governments have reshaped the welfare system in order to “make work pay” for disabled people, absolutely no commensurate policy interventions to protect them in the workplace or to tackle poor and discriminatory employment practice have been forthcoming.  In 2016, the Government’s use of sanctions and conditionality of social benefits as a tool for moving disabled people into employment was found to have “systematically violated” the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. For the7.4 million working households identified by the DWP as living in poverty, the Government has clearly failed to “make work pay.” 

It seems clear, therefore, that what disabled people need from the next Government  regarding their employment and support into work, are policies that commit to protecting their equal rights, deliver fair access to tribunals, and tackle poor employment practice, workplace discrimination, low pay  and job insecurity.  Until these issues are addressed it is entirely indefensible to persist with employment support founded upon such measures as sanctions, mandation and housing benefit caps. The last Government should be commended for commissioning Matthew Taylor to lift the lid on employment practice in the UK.  It is unclear to what extent his review will include any recommendations regarding disabled workers.  Hopefully it will at least lay the foundations for “good work” for disabled and non-disabled alike and will be heeded by the next government, whatever it’s political hew.


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  • I too agree that the rights of people with disabilities have been long ignored. With the number of people who fall in this category likely to rise in the foreseeable future, it is urgent to find a solution that works. Two possibilities come to mind. First, we need to find a way of educating employers that employing a person with disabilities may be a plus rather than a minus to the balance sheet. This of course depends on matching the right person with disabilities on the one hand, with the right situation within an organisation on the other. For this to work successfully, the government may have to invest in educating business organisations including the general public that the meaningful employment of a person with disabilities is advantageous to all concerned - both financially and materially.

    The second possibility is this: the government should entertain the possibility of a wholesale review of the benefits system in relation to people with disabilities. The benefits system in its current state is not fit for purpose. It places a great deal of emphasis on getting people off benefits as fast as it is practically possible. I think the modus operandi should be to explore situations in the work environment in which people with disabilities may the better be employed, that is, commensurate to their abilities. Yes, this is probably a time consuming process; but it may be found, if undertaken properly, to be a lot cheaper in the long run. The greatest benefit to the state will be in the cost to the NHS - an organisation whose finances are considerably overstretched.      

  • I totally agree that the rights of people with disabilities are not taken into account in the world of work.  Too often employers concentrate on what people can't do rather than what they can.  Disabled people do not in a bubble, they are consumers, commentators and often due to the difficulties of their daily life people with ingenious ideas.  What is needed is a more holistic approach to the world of work one which uses the experiences of disabled people to make improvements in every day life.  Britain has an ageing population and many of us may be forced to work long past the normal retirement age, change must happen.