No employee rights for agency workers

The British government yesterday moved to shelve an EU directive that would give temporary agency workers similar rights to permanent employees.

Although the clear majority of Europe's employment ministers backed the legislation, Germany joined Britain in blocking it, meaning it will now be discussed in 2008.

Business Secretary John Hutton argued that putting agency workers' rights on a par with the rights of employees would damage the UK's flexible labour market.

This view of the directive has been vocally sounded by the PCG, the freelance trade group, and the REC, the body for recruitment agencies. Both are opposed to the directive.

But angry unions say the UK's block of the directive shows the government is unwillingly to take "modest" measures just to give temps the rights of employees.

They want agency workers to no longer be subject to what they claims is 'legal discrimination' that sees them receive less pay, pensions, training and fewer holidays.

With the directive in force it would be more difficult for employers to undercut their temps' wages and conditions, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said last night.

But giving temps extra rights would make agency workers, including IT contractors, less attractive to employing businesses, argues Tom Hadley, of the REC.

He told the BBC: "There is a real threat that the bureaucracy and uncertainty that the directive would bring about would make employers think twice about using agency workers and that, in our view, isn't good for companies, and it's certainly not good for individual workers either."

Employment law firm Eversheds added that companies could still be put off from hiring temps in the future if EU ministers all agree on the directive by next year.

According to the Confederation of British Industry, union demands to improve agency workers' rights could cost a quarter of a million UK jobs.

But unions dispute the estimate, saying the employers' organisation got it wrong last time when they warned that enforcing the minimum wage would result in job losses.

Mr Barber added: "Our long-hours culture and unfair treatment of agency workers will only end when government stops its capitulation to a one-sided business agenda.

"What is most depressing today is to listen to ministers endorse the business argument that the UK economy can only succeed by having fewer rights for its employees than its competitors. This is a sad view of the capabilities of UK companies and their managers."

Helen Reynolds, the acting chief executive of the REC, said even temps themselves haven't demanded their rights change, despite unions' call to give them employee rights after the first six months of work.

"Our independent polling shows that over 80% of temps are satisfied with their assignment," she said, speaking before yesterday's vote.

"There simply isn't the abuse on the ground to support the need for this directive. It is not in the interests of recruitment agencies to treat agency workers badly, as without them they would not have a business."

One Bury-based business owner yesterday spoke out about the directive, saying he would rethink his use of agency staff if it becomes law.

"For us, less paperwork means more time spent running the business. The extra work and cost would make us rethink using temporary staff; we may as well employ people full time" said Chris Hardman, managing director of the Bacon Factory.

Small business group the Forum of Private Business, of which Mr Hardman is a member, said the directive would not suit anyone in the workplace.

"There is a need for flexibility…, for the employer as well as the employee," said FPB spokesman Phil McCabe.

"Many businesses and their agency workers will feel that more rigid working arrangements will not suit either party."

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation believes even if it is eventually passed, the directive would fail to protect agency workers from exploitation.

"We need to get to the bottom of why vulnerable workers are not receiving their rights and look at remedies to address this," the group said.

"The REC is looking at concrete measures to support these workers rather than calling for a piece of legislation that will make no difference to vulnerable workers on the ground."

Ann Swain, chief executive of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, said that the directive on temporary agency work "takes no account of the realities of the agency working market".

She added: "Temporary work does not equal low quality work; it can be a lifestyle choice by entrepreneurs.

"Highly-skilled temporary IT contractors want and need flexibility to work on short, cutting-edge projects which are vital to the development of European companies. This flexibility allows them to take their skills where they are most needed, and to have time to pursue training to renew their skill set. They neither want, nor need further protection than that which they currently enjoy."

Thursday 6th December 2007