Arguments rage over temp rights

With the Temporary Agency Workers Directive set to re-appear on the business agenda, the issue of the employment rights of temporary workers is thrust back into the spotlight. Mike Berry reports on the arguments for and against

As the UK begins its six-month presidency of the European Union, the Temporary Agency Workers Directive is likely to be forced back on to the business agenda for HR.

Discussions about the much maligned directive – first proposed in 2002 – have stalled in Brussels, primarily because the EU Council of Ministers cannot agree when temporary workers should gain equal employment rights.

But following the Warwick agreement with trade unions made before this year’s general election, the UK government has promised to look again at the draft directive.

Currently, the directive suggests that full employment rights should be extended to temporary workers after just six weeks.

Some member states argue that a temporary worker should have to work in a company for a year before gaining protections, while others say it should be six months. Some are even pushing for temps to have rights from day one in the job.

Part of the problem is that protection for temporary and agency workers is more complex than for those who work part-time or on a fixed-term contract because they have a triangular relationship with the agency and the hiring company.

Predictably, trade unions want the day-one solution, claiming that organisations would otherwise get around the law by hiring people for just under the qualifying period.

A TUC report, released last month, stated that agency workers in Poland and Slovenia have more rights than the estimated 600,000 temps in the UK. It said that only temporary workers in the UK, Hungary and Ireland do not receive the same rights of pay as permanent employees doing a similar job.

This position is “embarrassing” for the UK, according to Kerstie Skeaping, an associate at law firm Halliwells. “If the government thinks so much of them, why not put the legislation in place to protect them?” she asked.

Business groups, however, dispute the fact that temporary workers are poorly protected, and are concerned that implementation of the directive would cause irreparable damage to the temping market.

The Recruitment and Employ-ment Confederation, which represents recruitment agencies and professionals, said temporary workers were covered by a range of employment rights. Working time, the minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and statutory sick and maternity pay all cover temporary work, it said.

And the CBI warned that providing temporary workers with the same pay and benefits as permanent staff would result in huge administrative difficulties for companies, and would make using temps far less attractive.

Employers predict that the legislation will dramatically increase the cost of recruiting temps. Figures from last year’s CBI-Pertemps Employment Trends Survey of 500 firms showed that 58% of firms believe the directive would lead to significant extra costs and administration.

Recruitment agencies for their part fear that instead of some temporary jobs being a platform into permanent positions, temps will constantly be reassigned, as client firms will not want to offer them full employment rights.

The directive doesn’t take into account that many people elect to work on a temporary basis for positive reasons, warned Nigel Godbolt, HR director at logistics firm Ryder.

“Most temps are so out of choice – to give them flexibility in their work patterns, to gain wider experience, and to accommodate personal requirements,” he said.

Jonathan Porter, HR director at the Royal Berkshire Ambulance NHS Trust, said the directive highlighted the tension between continental Europe’s view of labour market legislation and that of the UK, which is “more flexible, more productive, has low unemployment and has seen better growth”.

But not all in the profession are against the proposed regulations. Joanne Francom, head of HR at Wirral Partnership Homes, said the UK needed the directive as employers were unlikely to treat temporary workers fairly without the stick of legislation.

The Department of Trade and Industry said it was still looking to find a way forward on the directive, but there has now been a two-year stalemate. Even if there was eventual agreement in Brussels, it would be a number of years before it became part of UK legislation.

By then, rights for temps may have already increased, and the thinking behind the directive would need to be reviewed to take into account other employment legislation, said Martin Hinchliffe, HR director at Welcome Break. “The question would need to be asked whether its initial intention was still valid,” he said.

EU Temporary Agency Workers Directive

  • Introduced in March 2002, the Temporary Agency Workers Directive aims to provide temp workers with the same pay and conditions as permanent staff.
  • Employers argue that in its present form, it would have a massive impact on the use of temporary workers in the UK, and would be detrimental to the flexibility of the UK labour market.
  • Business groups are lobbying for the derogation period on pay and conditions to be as long as possible and longer that the six weeks mentioned in the current draft.
  • The directive would also require fees charged by agencies when agency workers are taken on permanently – ‘temp to perm’ fees – to be reasonable.
  • It would also introduce a licensing scheme for employment agencies.

    Feedback from HR
    Richard Walden, HR director, Bircham Dyson Bell law firm
    “The directive would make using temps less attractive, but on the plus side, it may make organisations think more carefully and creatively about how they utilise staff to cover peaks and troughs in workloads.”

    Joanne Francom, head of HR, Wirral Partnership Homes
    “All employees – whether temporary, agency or permanent – should be treated equally. There are likely to be added costs, but the benefits of retention for both temporary and agency workers would significantly increase.”

    Alan Warner, corporate director (property and people), Hertfordshire County Council
    “Temporary staff coming in to the business won’t be up to the same speed as a permanent employee, so paying them exactly the same does not represent good value for money. If they worked for a longer period of time, that is a different kettle of fish.”

    Danny Kalman,
    HR director, Panasonic Europe
    “It’s not right that temporary staff are taken advantage of over a long term, but business needs to have the opportunity to respond to unpredictable times, when utilising temps is convenient.”

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