Agency Workers Directive: Expect the best, prepare for the worst

Don’t expect the agency workers debate to go away anytime soon. Emma Ceballos explains why the Agency Workers Directive isn’t dead yet.

It could have been D-day for the UK’s recruitment agencies as the European Commission discussed the Agency Workers Directive (AWD), but equal pay and employment conditions for temporary workers were blocked by a minority of countries, including the UK, on 5 December 2007.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) and the CBI breathed a sigh of relief. So it’s business as usual but don’t expect the debate to go away anytime soon. To borrow a quote: “Expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

In January, Gordon Brown’s aides opened talks with senior backbenchers on offering employee protection to agency and temporary workers, proposing a new commission to look at the issues. February saw a backbench rebellion as Andrew Miller MP secured a second reading for a Bill that proposes new rights for 1.4 million UK agency workers.

This isn’t a new issue. The European Council first discussed enforceable equality for temporary workers in 2002. The UK government’s attitude to the directive has been ambivalent in 2004, within the Warwick Agreement, it seemed Labour agreed to support the directive. Some backtracking here from the victorious business and enterprise secretary John Hutton last December, who was quoted as saying: “I wasn’t party to the Warwick agreement, but what I can see recorded was that we would resolve this at the European Union level. We agreed in principle a directive and we would try to get it sorted. We have no plans for legislation.”

Out of step

Our UK and European industry bodies are apparently out of step with each other too. Contrasting with the REC, Eurociett states that it “is not opposed to the adoption of a directive on agency work. However, any directive needs to achieve the right balance between the two main objectives, namely the lifting of restrictions for agency work and the protection of rights and working conditions of agency workers.”

The directive may have been shelved for now, but as a European Council press release pointed out post-meeting, it has been twinned with the Working Time Directive and, “the forthcoming presidencies and the commission might proceed with efforts to achieve a positive and final outcome on both directives, given the importance of the issues at stake and the specific needs of many member states.” The next EU presidency, France, beginning this July, is pro-AWD.

Whatever 2008 holds, even if the directive is eventually rejected, future UK legislation is likely to provide improved protection for temporary workers in some way, shape or form.

While reputable recruitment businesses will argue they already look after their workers, common sense and the evolution of employment law must tell us that what agencies have been enjoying so far is a result of employment law playing catch up.

Demands on employers

The recruitment industry has been benefiting from the demands on employers to look after their permanent staff, to avoid redundancies and other contract terminations wherever possible for fear of litigation. In this climate, the flexibility and security of using temporary workers, whether in a sector where there is a skills shortage or not, has been a boon for employers, and will continue to be so.

Equal pay and working conditions would not take away the key reason for using temporary staff – the flexibility of terminating placements easily to suit the employer.

Should the AWD or home-grown legislation come into effect, the process of the placing of workers would become much more complex, but would demand for temporary workers really drop dramatically as the CBI suggests?

An attractive destination

The UK will remain an attractive destination for migrant workers so the supply of temps will remain. The market may reduce to a point, but where we are most likely to see the change will be in the number of recruitment agencies that are financially and logistically equipped to implement new processes and systems to comply.

There are around 17,000 recruitment agencies in the UK now – those that survive will be adaptable, strategic organisations that can guide their clients through new legislation competently and confidently.

Many EU member states already enjoy equal treatment of agency workers – would the sky really fall in for recruitment agencies if the AWD does eventually go through?

Instead of panicking, perhaps we would be better off planning for all eventualities. To quote Zig Ziglar in full: “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalise on what comes.”

Emma Ceballos is operations director of Gap Personnel

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