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Manchester Urban Institute

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Our research is addressing inequalities in work and employment outcomes, policies, processes and practice.

Based in the Alliance Manchester Business School, our European Work and Employment Research Centre (EWERC) and Fairness at Work Research Centre (FairWRC) investigate inequalities and injustices in the contemporary world of work and employment. 

We carry out and stimulate cross-disciplinary research from the areas of economics, sociology, psychology, law and management studies. We ensure our research resonates with practitioners and policy-makers in the private, public and voluntary sectors across our city region of Greater Manchester, as well as nationally and internationally, through our wide range of external research partners and advisory boards. 

Within EWERC we focus on the following themes: gender, welfare and care; globalisation and comparative employment systems; industrial relations and decent work; and managing the changing workplace.

Within FairWRC we have prioritised the following themes dignity at work; fair pay and employment practices; gender and diversity; health and well-being; technology; voice, representation and trade unions.

Coming clean

Identifying better procurement and employment practices for subcontracted cleaners.

The challenge

In common with trends across the UK, many organisations across Greater Manchester procure cleaning services from specialist contractors. All too often, however, contracting practices focus on cost-cutting with adverse consequences for low-wage, subcontracted cleaners. The challenge for our research was to identify more responsible procurement practices that would improve working conditions for cleaning operatives and raise awareness of employment rights.

Our research

Greater Manchester faces a challenge of how to grow jobs of decent quality to support improved living standards for the local population. During this period of slow recovery from a major recession many jobs involve irregular hours, low pay and insecurity; women in part-time jobs are especially vulnerable. Improving standards of employment in the commercial cleaning sector, a sector well-known for its poor working conditions, would therefore send a welcome signal to other low-wage sectors of the economy and hopefully have positive ripple effects. Our research included case studies of banks, NHS trusts, city councils, airports, hotels and educational establishments in different regions of the UK, including Greater Manchester. The cases were designed to explore key features of procurement and contracting arrangements and to highlight ‘better practices’ for employment conditions. 

The impact

Our research has several important lessons for people, organisations and policy makers in Greater Manchester.

  • Compliance with TUPE rules (to protect terms and conditions of employment of cleaning staff moving from one organisation to another)
  • Raising the baseline unit price to enable payment of higher rates of basic pay
  • Time and resources to facilitate cleaners’ collective representation. 
  • ‘License to practice’ requirements
  • Minimum training provision specified in tenders
  • Avoidance of very short contracts
  • Greater focus on workers’ needs for working-time security and stability over cost considerations
  • Stopping the practice of zero-hours contracts
  • Enforcing enhanced pay rates for unsocial hours working.

These recommendations have already fed into discussions at Manchester City Council on how to incorporate a living wage in their supply chain, as well as to improving practices at the case-study organisations that participated in our research. The lessons also have more general application to other low-wage contracted services, such as catering and security services, across Greater Manchester. Better procurement practices can significantly enhance job quality for many thousands of people living in the region.

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Key people

  • Professor Damian Grimshaw, Professor of Employment Studies and Director of the European Work and Employment Research Centre, Alliance Manchester Business School
  • Dr Arjan Keizer, Lecturer in IHRM and Comparative IRs, Alliance Manchester Business School
  • Professor Jill Rubery, Professor and Deputy Director for Human Resources, Alliance Manchester Business School
  • Jo Cartwright, Lecturer in Employment Studies, Alliance Manchester Business School

Living wage

The living wage in UK local government.

The challenge

Since the economic collapse of 2007-08, the living wage has become a symbolic issue of pay equity and social justice across the UK, including areas such as Greater Manchester. The gap between pay rates and the hourly wage required to achieve a basic standard of living is increasing, and worryingly this pattern is now beginning to spread to unionised sectors such as local government.  

Our research

Our findings used publicly available data on living wage agreements in UK local government and our own case study research, funded as part of a CASE studentship by the ESRC and the UK’s largest public sector union UNISON. 

The living wage is calculated on an annual basis based on typical housing and living costs. It is estimated that over 5 million UK workers earn less than the living wage, and workers in sectors such as cleaning, retail and hospitality are particularly at risk of low wages. There is no statutory underpinning to the living wage: employers can implement a policy locally without accreditation with the Living Wage Foundation, and there are no mechanisms by which the accreditation obligations can be enforced.  In October 2014 there were over 800 employers accredited, and although a number of Greater Manchester authorities are working towards a full living wage, at present Salford City Council is the only one to be fully accredited.

The impact

Despite high levels of unionisation and collective bargaining coverage, around half a million local authority workers earn less than the living wage. Raising pay rates at the bottom would benefit large numbers of part-time women working in areas such as cleaning, school catering and social care. 

Over 100 councils claim to be living wage employers, but not all living wage policies are created equal:

  • Where a full living wage is not affordable, or councils do not want to make a long-term commitment to higher rates of pay, they may implement a temporary or non-consolidated version of the living wage (which can later be withdrawn or adjusted).
  • Many councils who are working towards a full living wage such as Oldham are not yet accredited: this means they are not obliged to honour the annual uplift and can maintain control over pay increases in the future.
  • Even those councils who have achieved accreditation have struggled to insert living wage clauses into contracts with private providers. The legal risk and additional costs associated with changes to the procurement process are often cited as key barriers.

The recently introduced Social Value Act for public sector procurement offers some room to include clauses which relate to employment standards, but it seems likely that the extension of living wages to external staff will be an increasingly important issue for many councils.

More broadly, our research has shown that at a time when public sector funding is being significantly reduced, efforts to raise starting rates may come up against other policies designed to reduce workforce costs such as cuts to jobs and hours, outsourcing, and changes to terms and conditions. Trade unions tend to be broadly supportive of living wages, but local branches have to remain vigilant to prevent better wages for one group of staff being paid for by cuts elsewhere. 

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Key people

  • Mathew Johnson is studying a PhD on People Management and Organisations, Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester

Improving employment outcomes for ethnic minority groups

The challenge

Greater Manchester is an ethnically diverse city, and has a higher number of black and minority ethnic groups than many other UK cities. However, this brings about challenges in the labour market because we know ethnic minority groups often disproportionately discrimination and barriers to employment compared to white and British born people. Yet there is a lack of knowledge about how Britain’s ethnic minorities experience such disadvantages – clearly this is a diverse group and the question is how these barriers take shape in different ways. In particular, we know that women and people from deprived areas often suffer the most barriers to employment so the question is how this impacts on people from different ethnic minority groups too.

Our research

This research project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and led by Ken Clark and Stephen Drinkwater. The aim was to examine the diverse experiences of Britain’s ethnic minorities, and to provide a detailed understanding of to what extent there are ethnic differences in labour market outcomes, and in particular by both ethnic group and gender as well as across the paid and self-employed sectors. It drew on Census data from 1991 and 2001 as well as the Labour Force Survey.

The findings revealed that, whilst some groups improved their labour market position relative to white people, substantial disadvantage remains for most both in terms of access to jobs and earnings once in employment. It should also be noted that ethnic disadvantage was gendered in ways that reflected cultural differences between groups. For example, the employment rates of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were particularly low (less than thirty per cent) and this was potentially explained by cultural attitudes towards labour force participation and childcare. In addition, whilst we know that living in a deprived area has a negative impact on employment outcomes, this was found to be much greater for Britain’s ethnic minority groups. The implications of these findings are that public policy may require different strategies for tackling the diverse labour market disadvantages for ethnic minorities, and we identify some of these in our report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The impact

The research has fed into a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on ‘Ethnic Minorities in the Labour Market: Dynamics and Diversity’. This informs a number of strategies that seek to address gaps in ethnic minority employment, for example a spotlight was placed upon the importance of equipping under-employed groups with the skills required to access employment opportunities.

Following the report, the research has fed into an evidence base informing policy at the Department for Work and Pensions and numerous local authorities, and helped to shape the 2010 regional economic strategy of the North West Development Agency. The report and associated work was featured in the press, notably The Economist, and on radio and television, including the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ series.

On the back of this positive coverage, Clark and Drinkwater were approached by the UK Government’s Department of Work and Pensions and the Local Government Innovation and Development Agency (IDeA) to write a ‘how-to guide’ for economic development officers at local authorities, which would assist them in crafting evidence based policy responses to the increases in ethnic minority unemployment, triggered by the recession. From late 2009 to early 2010 the guide was promoted at a series of regional workshops (for Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnerships), reaching a total of 439 delegates.

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Key people

  • Ken Clark, Senior Lecturer in Economics, School of Social Sciences
  • Professor Stephen Drinkwater, Professor of Economics, Roehampton University Business School

Recession, austerity policy and labour market inequalities

The challenge

The 2007 economic recession had severe implications on the United Kingdom (UK) labour market including increased rates of unemployment and a decline in real wages. However, these implications were more pronounced in Greater Manchester than at the national level, and the recovery was much slower. The UK government responded through implementation of a number of austerity measures including cuts to public services and welfare reform which has reduced both in-work and out-of-work benefits. These changes have intensified pressure for benefit claimants to seek and accept any type of work and this is reinforced by more frequent benefits sanctions, and this might help explain the rise in part time and non-standard forms of employment since the recession. However, austerity policies by their very nature restrict the available support for people to stay in and move into employment, so the question is what are the implications of this? And how might some groups be more negatively impacted on than others? And if so, in what ways?

Our research

This was a Marie Curie funded project on the effect of organisations and institutions on individual’s labour market and life-course options, and compared across the contexts of both the UK and Spain. It included some secondary data analysis to identify employment transitions over the course of the recession and subsequent austerity policies, and this was supplemented by fifteen interviews - 11 of these were carried out in Greater Manchester.

The findings revealed how the recession and austerity policies impacted on young people and women more than other groups. For example the findings demonstrated how austerity policies restricted women’s ability to find new employment or enter retraining, meaning often their only option was to rely on family. This presents a clear danger in terms of social inequality because it means support for women’s transitions may be contingent on household and family resources thereby meaning many women are trapped in low incomes. 

The impact

The research impacts on organisations and policy makers because it provides insight into the effect of the recession and austerity policies, and suggests the need to rethink how we approach employment regulation and public policy. In particular, it suggests the need to develop innovative institutional and organisational level policies to support (not restrict) individuals at times of recession to enable them to reorient themselves in a changing context.

Whilst much policy making is done at the national level, devolution may present an opportunity to rethink some of these aspects, for example the Work Programme which supports people into employment is being devolved and there is the potential for more devolution in the future.

A radical argument might be for devolution of certain aspects of employment regulation although this would require lobbying to national government and may be complex in terms of law. The findings have been presented to an audience of academics and policy makers at a range of national and international conferences, and a special one-day workshop was held by the University of Manchester’s on European Work and Employment Research Centre (EWERC) on ‘Labour market chances and transitions in times of austerity with an audience of 57.

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Key people


Young people in inner city Manchester and the barriers they face in progressing through education, training or employment.

The challenge

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  indicates that educational differences start very young and widen. Factors identified as potentially contributing towards what is often called the attainment gap include the aspirations, attitudes and behaviour of parents and children which the research believes can play an important part in explaining why poor children typically do worse at school. By 16 and older, it is considerable.

  • Tests at age 3 show a significant gap between more affluent children and the poorest fifth
  • Lower-achieving but more affluent children overtake the highest low-income achievers by age 7
  • Poorer children are half as likely to go to university as their more affluent peers

Such educational differences are known to impact on young people’s ability to access the key further education, employment and training opportunities that serve as gatekeepers to the route out of poverty. Over the past few years young people have seen the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, cuts to advice and support services (particularly locally based youth services), a reduction in further education funding and the removal of entitlement to a series of welfare benefits. For a review of these changes see the Guardian. According to the Princes Trust (2014) nearly one million young people are not in employment, education or training and 430,000 young people face long term unemployment.  With the school attainment gap seemingly resistant to change and both the employment market and post 16 education sector being severely squeezed we wanted to talk to the young people directly experiencing these forces to find out what barriers they are facing in Moss Side/Hulme/Old Trafford as they negotiate the journey from school into work, training or further education.

Our research

With funding from the Just GM research programme we undertook focus group research with 14- 19 year olds in Moss Side and Hulme on the barriers they face in progressing through education, employment or training. We met with young people at two local youth projects, Hideaway and the Powerhouse, and ran two focus groups supported by the local youth workers.

From the two group discussions we gathered a wide range of data focused primarily on the barriers the young people were experiencing in progressing through or into education, employment or training. It is the barriers that they were experiencing and their thoughts and feelings concerning these that in actuality dominated much of the focus group discussion for both groups. Much of the discussion was located for the young people in a ‘us’ and ‘them’ frame, with the ‘them’ being other young people who didn’t live in inner city Manchester and had money, transport, access to jobs, networks and contacts that the focus group participants didn’t have. The main barriers were identified as poor Guidance and Advice, Stereotyping and Racism, Lack of Money and Lack of Workplace Experience. Two further strong themes to emerge from the research were personal, social and emotional issues and relationships.

Personal, social and emotional issues

This theme was connected to the young people’s own inner experiences which was a consistent topic of conversation. All of the group were openly self-reflective and used the language of the social and emotional learning (SEL) discourse so recently dominant in the English school’s curriculum (Humphrey, 2013, Watson and Emery, 2012). The key factors in this theme were lack of self-confidence and self-assurance, negative thinking, low personal opinion of self, lack of personal motivation and anxiety regarding their vision of the future.


The influence of relationships (family and friends) was a strong focus for the group with many of the participants reflecting on this and identifying both the positive influences and the negative influences. Family were in general seen as a supportive positive factor however the role of friends was a much more complex one with many in the group relating stories of negative influence and friends being a barrier to them moving forward. The young people related a wide range of informal relationship networks that were key to them successfully navigating the barriers they faced.

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The Work Programme

The challenge

Greater Manchester is envisaged as central to the Northern Powerhouse vision of economic development, but there are entrenched problems in some parts of GM, for instance high structural unemployment; low skill levels; and employment barriers such as disabilities and offending behaviour. The Work Programme was started in 2011 by the Conservative-Liberal government to improve ‘welfare to work’ services by contracting them out to large firms such as G4S, Avanta and A4e at an estimated cost of £1.2 billion per annum.

We wanted to know how well The Work Programme is performing in Greater Manchester: does it meet the diverse and sometimes complex needs of participants, particularly in the region’s poorest areas?

Our research

Our researchers found that in GM the Work Programme offered significant inequalities of experience among different groups of unemployed people, depending on postcode, age, gender, disability and other characteristics of vulnerability. In Bury and Wigan the performance for placing a referred client in a job within 12 months improved by just 50% from 2011 to 2014 while in Stockport it improved by 180%.

Combining original analysis of secondary data from the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) and the ONS (Office for National Statistics) with interviews with Work Programme participants and staff, and others, Mat Johnson (European Work and Employment Research Centre) and Damian Grimshaw (Manchester Business School) discovered some fundamental problems with the Work Programme although it was working well with certain portions of the population.

Our researchers’ also found perverse incentives operating with The Work Programme:  payments to contractors were bigger for those with more complex needs, incentivising the  ‘parking’  of these individuals while targeting others identified as ‘closer’ to the labour market and able to make a quicker transition to a job. This ‘creaming’ of referrals drove up success rates, as measured by work achieved and sustained, since ‘work ready’ clients require less support.

Our research highlighted discrepancies between the ‘walk’ and the ‘talk’ of the jobs market ; GM has made tentative steps towards becoming a high-skill, high-wage economy but a large proportion of jobs created since 2010 have been in the low-wage retail and hospitality sectors, with limited opportunities to progress and insufficient opportunities for the rising number of graduates.

Participants in the Work Programme felt they were pushed to take jobs too soon with detrimental consequences if the position was then not held. Job Clubs, whose funding is now more precarious and whose role in the support of those seeking work has been much diminished, provided a richer and more flexible source of support. Jobs Club provision could in fact provide a model for a more responsive approach to job seekers’ disparate needs.

Johnson and Grimshaw make the case for new investment to deliver tailored and flexible programmes of skills training and confidence building. Their analysis suggest problems with the ‘one size fits all’ application of ‘work first’ principle.

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Key people

  • Professor Damian Grimshaw, Professor of Employment Studies and Director of the European Work and Employment Research Centre, Alliance Manchester Business School
  • Mathew Johnson, PhD Research Student, Alliance Manchester Business School