EU agreement on agency workers strikes the right balance

More than a million agency workers are employed in the UK. Their jobs can last a matter of hours, months and – in some cases – more than a year. Now a new European agreement means those workers will receive equal treatment after 12 weeks in a given job.

The agreement reached in Luxembourg last week follows a deal in the UK between the CBI and the TUC. It means that after the 12-week period, UK agency workers should have the same pay, holidays and other working conditions, such as overtime and breaks, as directly recruited staff. But it will maintain the flexibility agency work offers both employers and workers.

The UK has a strong, flexible labour market – and agency staff have a key role in that adaptability. Whether it is seasonal workers employed at busy times throughout the year, or staff taken on to work on specific projects, it is vital that business is able to bring in extra people quickly and easily.

And there are real benefits to agency work it is a flexible option for some and can be an important route back to work for the unemployed.

Agency staff already have core employment rights. They are entitled to at least the national minimum wage, 24 days’ paid holiday – rising to 28 days in April 2009 – statutory maternity and sick pay, protection under anti-discrimination law, and coverage under health and safety rules.

Now the EU agreement aims to put an end to the existing situation where agency staff can work in a company for a long time, but never receive equal treatment. And by including a reasonable qualifying period, fears that fewer people will have the opportunity to work or that business’ flexibility will be stifled are dramatically reduced.

I believe we now have the right balance between protection and flexibility.

The agreement between the CBI and the TUC was the catalyst here. It reflects the government’s commitment to both employers and workers. A commitment to secure greater protection and prosperity for working people, while preserving and enhancing our economic success. It has driven our approach to employment law over the past 10 years and it will shape our policies in the future, making the UK a better place to work and a better place to do business.

Pat McFadden is the employment relations minister

Business reaction to the EU deal

Kevin Green, chief executive, Recruitment and Employment Confederation

“The decision marks a significant change for the UK temping industry. It’s all very well the CBI and TUC forming a deal on behalf of employers and workers, but this directive will have the biggest impact on recruiters, who will have to make it work for all in practice. At this stage, it is too early to gauge its exact impact and we will be working hard to ensure that when this directive is implemented in the UK, it does not have a negative impact on the provision of temporary workers.”

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

“This agreement does appear to protect the flexibility of the UK’s labour market. While the CIPD would have preferred a longer time period before agency staff qualify for the same rights as permanent staff, three months is better than it might have been, considering equal rights from day one was also on the table.”

David Frost, director-general, British Chambers of Commerce

“This deal will deeply disappoint the business community. In tougher economic conditions, companies are looking for more, not less flexibility. The likely consequence of these changes is not greater protection for vulnerable workers, but less job opportunities for them. Although the UK government will be pleased that other member states have allowed them to use their 12-week negotiated deal, British business is now in a very vulnerable position. The door remains wide open to a further erosion of flexibility for UK business.”

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