London clears way for temporary workers’ rights

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Social partners and the UK Government have reached an agreement to grant equal treatment to workers employed via temporary work agencies, clearing the way for an EU directive on the issue, which could be launched as early as next June.

The agreement reached among British employers’ confederation CBI and the country’s Trade Union Confederation (TUC) concerns the following points: 

  • After 12 weeks in any given job, agency workers will be entitled to treatment equal to permanent workers’. 
  • Concretely this means that at least the basic working and employment conditions should be the same as if the workers had been recruited directly by the company they are working for to occupy the same job. 
  • Equal treatment does not cover occupational social security schemes. 

Both sides agree that the deal achieves fairer treatment for agency workers while not removing the flexibility that agency work can offer both employers and workers. 

The UK government will start a consultation with social partners on implementing measures, such as dispute resolution mechanisms, sectoral agreements and anti-avoidance measures. 

Employment Commissioner Vladimír Špidla welcomed the agreement, calling it "a milestone for social dialogue in the UK and an important step towards fair treatment of agency workers both in the UK and in Europe". 

Špidla added: "I hope it paves the way to conclude an agreement on the EU Agency Workers Directive in the Council next month [...] Today's agreement between social partners will facilitate the negotiations in the Council. I am confident that the Slovenian Presidency will bring about an agreement at the next Employment Council. I will fully support the Presidency in its efforts."  

The Commissioner nevertheless criticised the twelve-week period before a temporary worker can benefit from equal treatment, expressing his hope that "this agreement is another step towards equal treatment of agency workers as of day one – unless social partners agree otherwise". 

European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary John Monks called the agreement "good news for millions of 'temps' in Europe, not just in the UK". He agreed that "it clears the way for a new EU directive, based on the principle of equal treatment from day one, with possibilities to derogate only by collective agreement or by agreement between the social partners at national level". 

The UK Government declared: "The Government will now engage with its European partners to seek agreement on the terms of the Agency Workers Directive that will enable this agreement to be brought into legal effect in the United Kingdom. The Government hopes that an EU agreement will be obtained in time for the necessary UK implementing legislation to be introduced in the next parliamentary session."

UK Business Secretary John Hutton announced the agreement by saying: "This is the right deal for Britain. 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." 

Small businesses were far less positive about the deal. Tina Sommer, EU and International Affairs Chairman with the UK Federation of Small Businesses  (FSB), warned: "This is a disastrous deal for small businesses, which rely on the flexibility provided by agency workers." She added: "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." 

Sommer said: "Part of the reason for the UK’s relative economic success in the past decade has been the flexibility of its workforce. This deal could put all that at risk at the worst possible time. 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." 

The issue of the equal treatment of agency workers has been on the EU agenda since the early 1980s, when the Commission first proposed a directive affording them equal rights to those of permanent workers. 

However, the directive never came into being, mainly due to the resistance of consecutive UK governments, who feared that the country's highly deregulated labour market might not benefit from granting statutory rights to agency workers. 

Such workers, which constitute the most flexible part of the workforce, play a crucial role in many companies' HR strategies. 

  • 9 June 2008: Employment and Social Affairs Council (Luxembourg), at which the Slovenian Presidency is expected to put the agency worker issue on the table.

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