EU edges toward agreement on temporary work

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After a quarter of a century of discussions, the EU is on the brink of reaching an agreement on a Directive regulating temporary work after the UK seemed to soften its position on the issue, accepting the principle of equal treatment of temporary workers in exchange for liberalisation of the sector.

During the past 25 years, the UK has successfully managed to protect temporary work agencies’ ability to employ jobseekers who are worse paid and have lesser benefits in terms of job gurantees, holidays and social benefits than ordinary workers.

Many temporary work agencies, however, have seen the need to atract better-qualified personnel in order to compete with the regular labour market and get rid of the sector’s bad image. In February 2007, Eurociett, an industry federation bringing together the largest temporary work agencies in Europe, and UNI-Europa, the European branch of the global services trade union, published a sectoral joint declaration on agency work and flexicurity which recognised “the importance of reaching a fair balance between the protection of agency workers and enhancing the positive role that agency work may play in the European labour market”. In a number of member states, collective agreements heve been concluded between employers’ associations in the sector and trade unions.

Generally, these agreements are based on the principle of equal treatment between agency workers and permanent workers. Temporary work is also referred to in the Commission’s November 2006 Green Paper on “Adapting labour law to ensure flexibility and security for all” and in the June 2007 Communication “Towards Common Principles of Flexicurity: More and better jobs through flexibility and security“.

These initiatives have encouraged the Portuguese Presidency to make another attempt to break the deadlock. On 5 December 2007, employment ministers will debate the state of affairs, with a view to either finding a political agreement or at least hearing a progress report.

This time, ministers may find an agreement. The UK recently signalled its willingness to change its mind if that meant getting rid of collective agreements at national level, liberalising the sector across Europe and opening up new opportunities for temping agencies.

“If we can reach agreement on those three areas, I would be very optimistic,” UK Labour Minister McFadden told the UK parliament, saying that the government now “wants to reach agreement on the Directive.”

Speaking to the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons on 11 July 2007, UK Labour Minister Pat McFadden defined the three areas in which the UK wanted clarification:

  1. "From the UK's point of view, if we reach agreement on an equal treatment for an agency workers' directive, we would want it to properly apply to agency workers across Europe... Sometimes agency workers, because of collective agreements, may be paid less than other workers, or it may be to do with qualifying periods. It may sometimes be a regime of not equal treatment, which is indefinite."
  2. "The second area is liberalisation because if we have a regime where agency work is accepted as a legitimate part of the economy..., there should be equal access for reputable agencies to labour markets and to work in other member states. I gather that some other member states have issues with this liberalisation and equal access. 
  3. The third issue relates to whether there should be a qualifying period and, if so, how long. Different Member States take different views on that."

McFadden added: "We believe there is a strong argument for a regime of equal treatment, but we do want these three issues I mentioned to be resolved."

Services trade union UNI-Europa  Secretary-General Bernadette Ségol, said: "UNI-Europa has recently signed a statement with Euro-Ciett, which is clear about our stand on equal treatment: temporary agency workers must be treated equally with workers in the user companies. This should be the basic principle governing all EU countries. Any other treatment is a source of injustice, exploitation and national and european downwards pressure on wages." 

She added: "May I also point out that the social partners, when they considered an EU level agreement a few years ago, had opened the possibility for negotiations at national or sectoral level, to adapt the rule, if and when necessary. UNI-Europa believes that there is an urgent need for a legislation at EU level, given the development of the sector and the need to establish clear operating rules."

ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation, has expressed frustration towards Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the UK for blocking a deal, singling out their attitude for "special criticism". "Trade unions throughout the EU have been lobbying hard to get this law approved... However, there has as yet been little sign of progress," ETUC said in a statement.

The Commission's first proposal for a Directive on Temporary Work dates back to 1982. After years of failed efforts to find an agreement in the Council, the proposal was withdrawn in 1990. 

A new draft Directive on working conditions for temporary workers was presented in March 2002, with a twofold aim: 

  • To improve the quality of temporary work by ensuring that the principle of non-discrimination is applied to temporary workers, and; 
  • to establish a suitable framework for the use of temporary work to contribute to the smooth functioning of the labour and employment market.

The Parliament endorsed the Commission's proposal in November that year, adopting a number of amendments dealing with the departure from the principle of non-discrimination and seeking mainly to have the directive applied for the duration of a temporary worker's posting. The Commission adopted the amendements and sent the amended directive to the Council.

The proposal seems, however, to be as ill-fated as the previous one. It was discussed at no less than four Employment Council meetings between 2002 and 2004 and has been stalled since the Dutch Presidency. 

The bone of contention during 25 years of discussions has always beem the question of possible exemptions to the principle of equal treatment for temporary agency workers in terms of basic working and employment conditions. In particular, differences on the following question could not be surmounted:

  • how to address the need for a specific derogation with a view to fostering the insertion of the unemployed into the labour market;  
  • reviewing and possibly removing restrictions to temporary agency work, and; 
  • the principle and the length of the qualifying period for implementing the principle of equal treatment between permanent and temporary workers. Employers believe that this period should be 12 months or more; trade unions consider this vesting period too long.  
  • 11 June 2007: Temporary Work Directive debated in the European Scrutiny Committee of the UK House of Commons.
  • 5 Dec. 2007: Temporary Work Directive on the Agenda of the Employment and Social Affairs Council.

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