Business 101: Decent work in decent work conditions

We might have relatively fully employment in New Zealand currently, but do we have decent work? And just as important – are we educating for, and providing, decent work for those entering employment? By Kate Kearins.

I occasionally hear stories of recent graduates who have unrealistic expectations of the organisations they are applying to work for – including high starting salaries, low awareness of the need to sometimes work after hours, and an increasingly common assumption that they will be able to work from wherever they want, for a good chunk of the time.

On the flip side, I also hear from grads facing significant challenges in securing that first role in their area of qualification, of needing to take on more precarious work to gain relevant experience, and of sometimes having to work unconscionable hours to meet company and client demands.

The common ground of these two extremes is what most, in fact, are seeking: decent work in a decent work environment.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), decent work “involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men”.

It is, the ILO states, the “aspirations of people in their working lives”.

Let’s be clear: decent work is a reasonable ask. It’s also achievable – if both parties, employer and employee, engage in mutual sensemaking about their working environment.

Some aspects are non-negotiable. Physical, cultural and interpersonal safety, and the absence of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, are fundamental to decent work.

Fair and adequate compensation, and hours of work that allow for rest and free time are also fundamentally important and part of initial and regular ongoing discussion.  

More and more, we are seeing organisational values that mirror wider social values – as they must. This leads to a stronger embrace of diversity, greater understanding of family demands, and a growing acceptance and awareness of mental health issues alongside physical health issues.

It is quite reasonable to expect such values to be part of discussions around work, and for organisational responses to continue to develop and mature over time.

As managers and employers, we need to be able to offer decent – productive – work alongside decent work conditions.
The quality and quantity of the work and the kind of tasks really needs to resonate with the person doing it.  Particularly in a tight labour market, with considerable talk about talent shortages, decent work is fundamental to attracting and retaining good staff.

But do decent work conditions and decent work go hand in hand? Ideally, yes. In reality? Not always.
Contemporary work may well look like a constant stream of assignments – not always designed by the manager, and very often needing the problem to be defined before a solution can even begin to be found.  

This might be frustrating to new (and newly qualified) graduates whose hard-earned degrees don’t always reflect their on-the-job experiences.

We need to be realistic about how we advise and help manage the expectations of those entering the job market – from salary levels to the quality, quantity, content and place of work.  

An employer based in Melbourne recently spoke to me about the need to socialise new graduates into work – and post this part of the pandemic, back into the world of (regular) human contact in the workplace. Two, going on three, years of disrupted education may well have primed them for disruption, but not always for developing the work relationships that predispose them for feeling like they can ask simple questions of a colleague face-to-face.

Discussions around decent work may be even harder to have. But fundamental – and necessary. 

Kate Kearins is Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.
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