It seems that the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee (Personnel Today, 29 March 2005) has taken upon itself the role of softening up the business community so that it will accept the European Parliament’s wish to phase out the UK’s opt-out of the Working Time Regulations by 2010.
The committee’s report gets a five out of 10 score from the specialist engineering sector of the construction industry. It is mostly right about the proposed EU Agency Workers Directive, but mostly wrong in its comments on the review of the Working Time Directive.
Temporary agency working is the lifeblood of the construction industry and related specialist engineering. Contracts do not last forever, so we have to maintain mobility among the workforce. Temporary agency working is crucial to this. It is easy, therefore, to see how difficult the principle of equivalent pay would be to put into practice.
Our policy makers also need to look beyond the model of permanent employment as a standard. As it happens, there is a well-established temporary agency labour market in this sector in the UK.
What the lawmakers fail to understand is that this very flexibility provides our often highly-skilled workforce with a means of obtaining long-term employment security, through working relatively seamlessly across several employers in a way which would be impossible through the standard model of direct, permanent employment.
So permanence after an arbitrary 12 months, as the proposed directive would impose, is just as misplaced as the principle of pay equivalence itself. The select committee’s view that it is “not convinced of the necessity of maintaining the opt-out” is based on a lack of understanding of the need for long-hours working.
Specialist engineering is a dynamic sector in which contractors need the flexibility of the kind available under the current Working Time Regulations to avoid significant liquidated damages claims from others involved earlier in the construction process.
The sclerosis of the kind envisaged by the European Parliament – and which the Trade and Industry Select Committee is “not convinced of” – would be a body-blow to this sector and, one suspects, to many others in the UK economy.
P D Rimmer
Head of employment affairs department
Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association