Dismissing 850 or so agency workers was never going to be a PR victory for BMW management. But even they must have been surprised by the flak and opprobrium that came their way.
Yet they were perfectly entitled to sack agency staff with virtually no notice, as they have few rights. Ironically this was made clear by a government–backed awareness campaign, which started just before the Cowley sackings. Agency workers should know this but being sacked without severance pay at this time is a bitter pill to swallow.
This incident will now feed into arguments over the scope of the Agency Workers’ Directive which will, once it comes into effect, endow agency workers with a few more rights. The government has until 2011 to implement the directive in what is – by scale – the developed world’s largest agency worker market. There are 1.26 million agency workers in the UK, 4.5% of the workforce, compared with 2.4% in France, 2% in the US and 1.3% in BMW’s homeland, Germany.
The Department for Business will consult with unions, employers and recruitment agencies about the scope of the directive. Reaching a consensus will be difficult, especially considering the economic mess the UK is in.
Employers will rightly be worried that they may be compelled to pay agency workers severance, but this is unlikely to happen. What they should learn from the BMW experience is the importance of managing such situations well.
For example, employers should make sure agency workers are aware of their rights on a continuing basis and not suppose employment agencies have told them. And, if they have long-ish term agency workers, they should communicate with them regularly on how well the company is doing and the challenges it faces.Good communi–cations can go a long way to making the unpalatable more bearable.