Last week a group of cleaners at Stansted airport were told not to come to work the next day as they were no longer required. Most are from Eastern Europe and Africa. All are agency workers.
Temporary and agency workers are in a particularly precarious position. They can be hired and fired almost at will. They have no guaranteed hours or permanent contract of employment. They often work for lower wages and receive less favourable sick pay and other ‘perks’ than the directly-employed colleagues they work alongside. Added to this, scams and abuse such as categorising these workers as “self-employed” contractors in order to avoid holiday pay and other rights, are widespread.
Some of the workers sent packing at Stansted held contracts claiming they are self-employed contractors and tying them to the agency on pain of punitive financial penalties should they seek direct work with the client company. They were paid less and received no company sick pay.
The Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers were a tragic example of the ruthlessness with which agency bosses will exploit. Disproportionate among these vulnerable, low-paid workers are the weaker sections of our class – young, migrant and women workers.
The Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill has its second reading in Parliament as we go to press. It would make these abuses illegal. It would legally require employers to offer the same terms and conditions to temporary and agency workers as the directly employed. It would also require the client employer to offer direct employment to agency workers in their employment as vacancies arise. Both the client employer and the agency would be liable for breaches. Expect the Government to do everything it can to prevent it from becoming law.
The passing of this Bill into law would be a serious step forward in fighting the super-exploitation of some of the most vulnerable workers in society and socialists should support it. But the Bill alone will not stop the problem.
The workers at Stansted are winning their jobs back. The client has promised to start taking those who have been there a long time into direct employment. The workers are taking legal advice and can enjoy the support of their colleagues. This is because they are in a union, Unite. Their colleagues and employees of the union were able to threaten the company with press attention and demonstrations at the workplace and home of the manager who treated these workers so appallingly.
Even with this Bill as law, workers will be exploited. Only serious, industry-wide, trade union campaigning can level the playing field between temporary and agency workers and direct workers, and can drive up conditions for all. Only solidarity can enforce the current legislation and any new protection that comes in; only solidarity has the power to stop the scams and abuses currently so prevalent.