MPs: give agency workers full employment rights

Gordon Brown has come under fresh pressure to give employee-style rights to temporary agency workers from the first six weeks of their assignments.

Over 100 MPs have made it known to the prime minister's aides that they want Britain's 1.4million agency workers to be equal to full-time staff in terms of their pay and conditions.

In an Early Day Motion, they said Britain should sign the EU Temporary Agency Workers directive, to give people working via agencies employment rights from the sixth week of work.

The MPs say the move would protect agency workers, who typically forego pensions or holiday/sick pay, because less protections mean they are subjected to "blatant exploitation."

They said agency workers "are subjected to inferior pay and conditions and blatant exploitation… [and] are sometimes employed to undercut permanent workforces, creating divisive conditions and resentment."

As a result, they want the government to "take appropriate action to establish the principle of equal pay and conditions for agency workers compared with their permanent counterparts."

But the UK's trade group for freelancers, many of whom use agencies, told CUK that giving employment rights to all agency-using staff, typically used to cope with fluctuating skills demand, would be fatal.

The Professional Contractors Group did caution that agency workers must be protected from exploitation. Yet the group stressed that MPs should be "extremely careful when handling loose terms like 'agency worker.'"

John Kell, its policy officer, explained: "Highly-skilled freelance professionals who happen to use agencies to find work do not want employment rights; indeed, their entire way of working would be destroyed if employment rights were to be foisted on them.

"Even for genuine 'temps' there is already a significant amount of regulation: the key to preventing exploitation is to implement existing rules properly, not to create new and even more awkward ones."

The government has so far agreed with the PCG's stance, and narrowly avoided having the directive imposed on Britain at a meeting in Brussels last December.

But if the matter had been put to a vote, Britain would most likely have lost as only three other countries out of the EU's 27 member states opposed the directive.

Instead, no vote was called and no agreement was reached. MEPs decided that the controversial legislation would be discussed again in 2008.

Since then, business secretary John Hutton has vowed to work with his colleagues to find a compromise in Europe, which the Early Day Motion is hoping to make true.

Andrew Miller MP, one of its signatories, reflected: "There's a sensible dialogue going on between myself and government ministers and social partners.

"There are more than a million agency workers, some of whom are treated in a shoddy way which most decent employers would be concerned about."

But the CBI, the UK's largest employers' organisation, believes that foisting employment rights on agency staff – agency workers have not demanded full-time protections - would make them less attractive.

The group estimates that 250,000 temporary jobs could be lost, as giving them the rights would make it difficult for employers to respond rapidly to business peaks and troughs.

Major recruitment bodies, including the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, have agreed. The REC warns employment rights for temps would make agency work "unduly bureaucratic."

In the tech industry, a primary user of agency workers, the prospect of Britain universally adopting the EU directive has been condemned by The Association of Technology Staffing Companies, an IT recruitment trade body.

"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" said Ann Swain, ATSCo's chief executive.

"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."

A commentator in the mainstream press seems to disagree. In his column in the Guardian, Seumas Milne argued that the directive gives Britain a chance to put a stop to the "abuse of agency workers", which he said is "fuelling racism and exploitation".

He also rejected the business lobby's concerns: "Of course equal rights for agency staff would in no way interfere with genuine temporary work, and the impact of exploited agency workers is felt far beyond their ranks, as the downward pull on wages and conditions for directly employed workers makes itself felt."

However, any legislation that reduces the flexibility of today's labour market will only service to harm the economy, according to David Frost, director general of the British Chamber of Commerce.

Of the directive, he said: "The UK agency sector is well established with one third of all agency workers in Europe employed here. As a result, current proposals in the Agency Workers' Directive will disproportionately affect the UK."

Meanwhile, new measures to clean up the agency work sector, such a doubling the number of agency-work inspectors and arming them with greater powers, has failed to satisfy union demands.

The expectation that temporary agency workers will get employment rights, either through the directive or a private members' bill, is rising because Labour leaders reportedly promised the move in return for unions' political support.

But the PCG is not so sure agency workers are about to get something they haven't asked for.

"So far the government has recognised the difficulties around this issue," said Mr Kell, responding to questions.

"It has not supported the broad-brush approach of either the EU's Temporary Agency Workers Directive or the repeated attempts to introduce a UK Private Members Bill to the same end. We applaud them for this, and hope and expect it to remain their position."


Tuesday 5th Feb 2008