New legislation giving rights to Britain’s 1.8 million temporary workers should be in place by April this year, but will not be enforced until 2011.
The Agency Workers Directive (AWD) gives new rights to agency staff after 12 weeks of employment. Rights include equal pay to permanent members of staff, holiday entitlement, childcare, transport facilities and further access to on-site facilities. The legislation, however, doesn’t cover further rights such as pension schemes, sick pay or notice of dismissal. Although the legislation is still seriously lacking in some areas, the labour movement should welcome its implementation this year.
The Labour government may well be trying to strike a deal with the unions before the coming general election. By introducing the legislation now, it is also likely that the government is using the AWD as a token to play in the election, rather than waiting for the EU directive to be forced through by its deadline in 2011.
Unions have been pushing for agency workers’ rights over the last several years. Vince Passfield, regional co-ordinator of Unite, said: “We have been campaigning for 'Fair & Equitable Treatment of Temporary and Agency Workers' for some years now. This included the lobbying of MPs and particularly MPs who are Unite members, seeking their support. The Agency Workers Directive is something we have been pushing for. The Department for Business, Innovations and Skills proposes to implement the Directive on the basis of the CBI/TUC agreement of May 2008.”
The differences in working conditions and income should be significant once the legislation is implemented. For example, a low-skilled office worker/administrator who earns in the region of £6.50 - £8 per hour in London may soon be entitled to up to a £2 per hour pay increase, due to the average full time salary of a permanent administrative worker (around £18,000 - £20, 000). Low-skilled workers such as fruit pickers, cleaners and warehouse operatives will also get a significant pay rise. Most temporary warehouse workers get the basic minimum wage, whereas a permanent warehouse worker can earn up to £16,000 per year. According to a TUC analysis of official statistics, agency staff are paid 80p for every pound paid to permanent staff doing a similar level of job.
The right to full holiday entitlement is also a significant step in ensuring equal treatment for agency staff. Under existing conditions some agency workers get little or no holiday entitlement, forcing them to work month after month without the basic right of being able to afford to take time off.
Dismissal without notice is still an issue that needs to be seriously addressed in relation to temporary workers’ rights. It is not uncommon for an employer to simply decide that they no longer require a temporary member of staff, even if that member of staff was told they would be employed for a longer period. In fact, there are no rights to protect agency workers from facing unemployment at any time. Unlike full-time members of staff who are given notice and redundancy, there is nothing to protect agency staff against cutbacks and job losses. Agency staff can be dismissed with as little as an hour’s notice.
Dawn Phillips, a London temp worker for over two years, felt the full force of such a lack of job protection last year: “I was temping for a private social housing scheme called Coin Street. I was punctual and good at my job. I fell ill after a few weeks of working there, but my agency told me I had to go in or face losing my job. I was too unwell to go in to work so lost my position at Coin Street and wasn’t given any more work by my agency. It was a terrible position to be in and I’ve realised just how vulnerable agency workers are after that.”
One agency worker hired at a London based financial institution was kicked out of her job after two and a half years. She was promised a permanent contract on several occasions, so she stayed there in the hope of securing a full time position. Once the economy was in recession she was told that the company was no longer taking on permanent staff. Her job stats were some of the highest on the team, but she still struggled to secure anything long term. Her worries deepened when she became pregnant. Once the bosses found out about her pregnancy, she was dismissed with one week’s notice.
When a company makes cutbacks and sheds jobs, who is it that gets the kicking? Agency workers. When BMW decided to slash 850 jobs last year at its Mini car plant, almost all those sent packing were agency workers, some of whom had been at the factory for several months or more. The concept that a company can pull in cheap labour, employ individuals for months or years at a time, and drop them as soon as the going gets a little tough is a scandal. The legislation paves the way for change, but it must be enforced rigidly, without loopholes.
Once the directive is in force the employment agency will be held responsible for any breach of a right to equal treatment, but they could have a reliable defence if they have taken steps to obtain the necessary information from the hirers and have acted reasonably in determining the agency worker’s basic employment conditions. Agency workers will now have the right to demand from their agency information regarding their equal treatment rights. If they do not receive a response from the agency they have the right to demand this from their hirer. Both will have 28 days in which to respond to these demands.
Some estimates suggest that as many as a third of all agency workers in the EU are based in the UK. It is therefore vital that the UK introduces the legislation now. The myth that all agency workers are those seeking temporary work is simply untrue. According to a TUC poll, 32 per cent of agency workers say they would rather have a permanent job but couldn't find one, and a quarter of agency workers say they have been in their assignments for more than six months.
The new legislation is a positive step for vulnerable agency workers open to exploitation, but it needs to be fully acted on as soon as the directive comes into force. A flexible job market may well have proved a useful tool for a small minority of workers, such as students seeking flexible hours or those looking for short-term positions, but few agency workers choose such a lifestyle. In times of deep recession, a temporary position can often be the only form of employment available for months at a time.
Labour could, and should, have introduced the legislation a long time ago. The economic crisis may have been the stated reason for a delay over the last two years, but to deny temp workers the same rights as their permanent counterparts is unacceptable. With the Tories already saying that they will amend or repeal the law, the Agency Workers Directive must be defended.
Temporary workers remain crucial to capitalism in Britain, with well over a million workers currently on agency assigned jobs. We must fight to defend and extend the new legislation and not let the Tories dismantle it in anyway.