The controversial Agency Workers Directive (AWD) has been hanging over the British workplace for almost all of the new millennium but despite an uneasy cease-fire in recent time the battle lines are once again being drawn.
The Agency Workers Directive has had innumerable false starts – even judging by the notoriously laborious progress of most EU legislation – with countless revival attempts and blocking moves played out across the continent.
However, renewed pressure from the EU and a push from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) could see the proposals brought back to life yet again.
The directive, which would essentially give temporary staff exactly the same rights as full-time employees after just six weeks, is sure to have employers bodies and trade unionists at loggerheads after a long, uneasy stalemate.
The long-running debate is one that tends to polarise opinion: employers argue that it would destroy flexibility and cost jobs, while trade unions claim it would help prevent exploitation of vulnerable workers.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber used congress to call for a new push on the legislation.
“I urge the government as strongly as I possibly can – let’s see action to deliver the promised European Directive – to give agency workers justice and dignity, and if that can’t be achieved quickly then let’s get on with the necessary measures here in the UK.”
However, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) countered this with research that claims the introduction of the AWD could cost as many as 250,000 jobs in the UK.
The survey, carried out in partnership with employment agency Pertemps, found that 58% of the 500 firms questioned would be forced to cut the number of temporary placements if the law was passed as drafted.
CBI deputy director-general John Cridland said the AWD would undermine the benefits of using temps and threaten the existence of the very workers it is designed to protect.
“This important section of the workforce has an uncertain future if the government caves into pressure for a new EU law. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be put at risk unless Gordon Brown rejects it outright, or at least insists on a qualifying period of a year before full employment rights apply to a temporary post.
“As proposed, the directive would seriously undermine the flexibility that temps offer to firms, hurting the economy and making them far more likely to rely on overtime flexibility from existing workers instead,” he said.
Jonathan Maude, head of employment at law firm Manches, said the developments would be a big concern for British companies which are the biggest employers of temporary workers in Europe.
“From a UK standpoint this directive would probably be the worst possible thing that could happen. I appreciate that the unions will have a different view but agency workers already have a lot of legal protection.
“I think it would be a case of the EU over-legislating in an area where it’s not really needed,” he said.
Helen Reynolds, acting chief executive officer of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), agreed that the directive would prove too restrictive and jeopardise thousands of temporary jobs.
“This would have serious consequences for the thousands of temporary workers that choose agency work for a level of flexibility that simply isn’t possible in permanent positions,” she explained.
David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at employers body Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF), said the positions of both sides has not changed in recent years, so any resolution could still be a long way off.
“I wouldn’t say we’re at a red-light stage but we could be on amber, because a lot of pressure will be coming from the TUC.
“Realistically I think it will be difficult to revive this directive in the current form as it’s already been stalled for a long, long time. I don’t think the government are opposed to a directive in principle but it must be one that’s right for Britain.”
TUC on the war-path
However, strong words from Barber seem to suggest that a new fight is already underway.
“I am disappointed to see the CBI opposing any idea of proper European regulation of employment agencies. The CBI used to oppose the minimum wage too,” Barber said.
“Now is the time to think again about employment agencies. It’s time for another minimum wage moment.”