Employer awareness of working poverty: a qualitative case study

Victoria Walker, Ian Cunningham

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


The majority of people who experience poverty in the UK belong to a household where at least one adult is working (Tinson et al., 2016). Various evidence highlights how employer strategies create and sustain the conditions that cause poverty, with low wages and insecure working hours key determinants (Shildrick et al., 2012, Findlay et al., 2019, Richards and Sang, 2019). However, poverty is not simply an economically disadvantaged position, but a lived experience that is strongly associated with stigma and shame, in which ‘the poor’ become othered by the ‘non poor’ (Lister, 2021). This stigma stems from what are still highly popular notions of the undeserving poor, in which the individual is blamed for their hardship. Those experiencing poverty themselves will also participate in this othering, in an attempt to disassociate from the shame of being poor (Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013). However, limited literature has considered how employers are also complicit in this othering, despite their role creating the conditions that sustain poverty. This paper will present and compare qualitative data from employers in low paying service sectors. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with line managers, senior managers, and HR practitioners from four organisations within the hospitality and social care sectors. Participants were asked about their awareness of working poverty and financial hardship amongst their staff, as well as initiatives and support available for low paid staff to support their financial well-being. The data reveals a strong disposition for managers to place the blame firmly with employees for their circumstances, in an attempt to distance themselves from the existence of poverty within the organisation. The welfare system was criticised for creating dependency cultures and not incentivising employees to work more hours. Interesting nuances were uncovered in comparison of the two sectors. In hospitality, managers were often wilfully unaware of financial hardship amongst low paid employees within their own organisation. Where it did exist, poverty was very much considered the failure on the part of the employee to budget appropriately, rather than as a result of low wages or insecure hours. In contrast, managers in social care were more willing to concede the existence of financial hardship among staff, on the basis that they were prevented from paying better wages due to the limited funding provided by local authorities. However, awareness was still limited, with poverty often perceived as happening elsewhere, rather than within their own teams. This paper concludes by reflecting on moral categorisations of people in poverty.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2022
Event40th International Labour Process Conference - University of Padova, Padua, Italy
Duration: 21 Apr 202223 Apr 2022
https://www.ilpc2022.fisppa.it/mod/page/view.php?id=13 (Link to Conference website)


Conference40th International Labour Process Conference
Abbreviated titleILPC 2022
Internet address


  • poverty
  • employer strategies
  • poor


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