Agency staff win equal rights at work

Temporary agency workers have won the legal power to be treated at least equally to their directly employed colleagues from the 12th week of work.

The fresh proposals are seen as a compromise between union calls for temps to win equal treatment from day one and enterprise's call to grant it from the sixth month.

Equal treatment will be defined to mean at least the basic pay and employment conditions that would apply if the agency worker was recruited directly by the employer.

The deal does not have immediate implications for freelancers, who use agencies, but signals that the government wants staff at home and in Europe to enjoy equal rights.

The government will now talk with EU ministers to reach an agreement on an updated agency workers directive to enable the proposals in the UK, scheduled for the autumn.

"The deal announced today represents the government's new negotiating position on the Agency Workers Directive – no more, no less," said John Brazier, managing director of the PCG.

"As with all other aspects of the directive, it is not at all clear that freelancers are in scope: the precise scope of the measure will not be decided until the government comes to implement it in the UK."

Under the law, temporary agency staff will not get sick pay or pension payments, and they will have to work the same length of time as full-time staff to win paid maternity leave.

"This is the right deal for Britain," said John Hutton, the business secretary.

"Today's agreement achieves our twin objectives of flexibility for British employers and fairness for workers. It will give people a fair deal at work without putting their jobs at risk or cutting off a valuable route into employment."

However, there are still "concerns that any new regulations will impact on the viability of temp and contract work in the UK, especially at such a delicate time," according to Tom Hadley, a director at the REC.

Although the CBI said the deal is "the least worst outcome" for business, Mr Hadley said recruiters were frustrated that the debate on agency workers' rights was not "based on real evidence."

The REC said the "scope of equal treatment provisions" is a vital issue and must only cover only basic pay rather than other benefits which would be almost impossible to work out for each assignment.

The Federation of Small Businesses denounced the proposals outright, saying they represent a "disastrous deal" for enteprise, which depends on the flexibility agency workers provide.

"Agency fees and high hourly rates mean temporary workers, far from being seen as cheap labour, are already a costly but useful way of responding to fluctuations in demand. If that flexibility is lost, many small businesses will stop using temporary employees," the group said.

The FSB's chairman for EU affairs Tinna Sommer said part of the reason for the UK's relative economic success in the past decade was owing to the flexibility of its workforce.

"This deal could put all that at risk at the worst possible time," she said.

"After month-on-month increases in unemployment and with economic growth at its lowest point since the last recession, this is the last thing small businesses need."

Yesterday's proposals on the twelve-week qualifying period for temporary workers to win full-time employment rights has been reached as an alternative to setting up a "commission" on agency workers, as proposed by prime minister Gordon Brown.

The PCG said the forum, which would have been set up in the style of Low Pay commission, will now not be taken forward. Instead, the government will seek to secure the new arrangement in the text of the European directive.

TUC president Dave Prentis reflected: "This is good news for agency workers, particularly those in workplaces where low pay, long hours and exploitation are the norm.

"Not all agency workers get a bad deal at work, but those that do, deserve the full backing of the law, and this agreement brings that protection a step closer."


Wednesday 21st May 2008
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