Agency Workers Directive: New rights for temps 'would hurt UK IT'

Temporary agency workers are a step closer to having the same rights as full-time employees after a bill proposing the move won backing from over a third of Labour MPs.

In a House of Commons meeting on Friday, 147 MPs voted in favour of Andrew Miller's Temporary and Agency Workers Equal Treatment Bill, compared to just 11 against.

Joined by his supporters, the MP said it was "morally right" to tackle the "exploitation" of agency workers, who typically forego sick pay and other rights granted to permanent staff.

But the CBI maintains that aligning the rights of temps with employees would make a flexible and immediate staffing option unattractive, potentially causing 250,000 agency jobs to disappear.

It would also damage the UK tech industry, a major user of agency workers, and depress pay rates for IT contractors, recruitment firm Hudson told Contractor UK last night.

"Forcing employers to provide temporary workers with the same rights will only serve to put downward pressure on pay," warned Luke Archer, the firm's director of IT recruitment.

"While more rights for agency workers may benefit lower-paid temps, it will damage those contractors in the IT sector who choose temporary work for lifestyle and financial reasons."

The CBI is even less optimistic, saying that contrary to union claims, the measures "would not protect vulnerable workers." It hopes "deficiencies" in the bill will be exposed in the next committee stage.

"Forcing businesses that use temps to pay a standardised rate from day one will be an administrative nightmare," the employers' organisation said after Friday's vote.

They argue it would also 'confuse' many temps, while having to cater for full employment rights would put off businesses from using them, particularly for holiday or maternity cover.

Legislating to give extra protections to part-time agency workers would end their exploitation and, unions also argue, put Britain on a par with Europe. But this argument is overrated, Mr Archer hinted.

"An ever increasing number of IT professionals are evolving into 'career interims' because they have the opportunity to drive change and improvements within organisations.

"Many employers choose to increase their workforce at busy periods, and reward them [temporary agency workers] well with higher wages to compensate for the loss of those additional benefits, such as holiday and pension, that permanent workers receive.

"Demand is high from overseas for the UK's IT services expertise," he said, "but reducing the pool of available talent to service that need could jeopardise our world-leading position."

So far the government has agreed with this stance, which is supported by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, the Professional Contractors Group and the Association of Tech Staffing Companies.

And although the bill is unlikely to make it on to the statute book, as the government reportedly told the Financial Times it would oppose it, Gordon Brown is under pressure to act.

Tomorrow, he is expected to meet with union bosses to thrash out a compromise, probably a return to the commission initially proposed to explore ways temp rights could be bolstered.

Speaking after Friday's vote, unions rejected such a half-way house as an unsatisfactory "promise of jam tomorrow," saying instead that legislation was the only way forward.

"Nothing less than primary legislation, delivered now, can quell the clamour that has come from MPs, the Labour Party's ruling body and from the wider labour movement," said Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite.

The CBI has lent its support to the idea of a commission, but with caveats: any measure to give temps equal rights in Europe should not undermine Britain's flexible labour market – in other words, the group won't rubber-stamp union demands.

Temps 'on the ground,' meanwhile, seem to be reminding both sides of the campaign that they haven't issued any demands for employee-style protections.

Mr Archer reflected: "Let's listen to the UK's large body of valuable professional talent who are saying they want to be in charge of when and how they work and want to be rewarded accordingly."

Monday 25th Feb 2008
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