European laws on agency workers and working time have highlighted deep
divisions in the UK workplace, by Ross Wigham
Employers and unions are on a collision course over forthcoming European
employment legislation, which is fuelling the increasingly confrontational
industrial relations climate highlighted by last week’s TUC conference.
The argument centres on the combined impact of two proposed European
directives which the CBI claims will shatter UK competitiveness, slash overtime
hours and cost thousands of jobs around the country.
The employer group has long warned that European regulations on working time
and draft legislation on temporary workers would harm the economy. It cites new
research on the business impact of the legislation as indisputable evidence of
However, the TUC is firmly in favour of the proposed changes, which it
believes will protect temporary staff from exploitation and reduce the number
of employees being forced into working long hours.
Last week, TUC members unanimously voted in favour of motions calling for
the end of the UK’s opt-out from the EU Working Time Regulations and in support
of the Agency Workers Directive, which would give temporary staff equal rights
as permanent members of staff.
The CBI’s sixth annual Employment Trends Survey, published the week before
the TUC conference, revealed that 40 per cent of organisations believe losing
the opt-out would have an adverse affect on their business. It also claimed
widespread opposition to the Agency Workers Directive.
The survey of 550 employers found that almost half would offer fewer work
assignments if the proposed directive on temporary staff was introduced in its
The draft directive would see employers forced to offer temporary workers
the same employment conditions as permanent staff from day one of employment,
and the same salary after a six-week qualification period.
A further 59 per cent of employers said the directive would impose
additional costs, making temporary staff less affordable and removing the
flexibility that has proved vital to the UK economy.
CBI deputy director general John Cridland said both proposed directives
would damage the very people they were designed to help, and admitted there was
a ‘gulf in understanding’ between his organisation and the unions.
"Our real concern is that this will actually damage the employment
prospects of the workers it’s supposed to help," he said. "This
survey shows inappropriate and unnecessary EU rules threatening the freedom of
individuals to work when and how they choose.
"The arguments aren’t new, but the evidence is. We’re not
anti-legislation, but what we have a problem with is badly-crafted legislation.
We support rights for workers, but this cannot be introduced in its current
form without damaging the economy," he added.
Cridland reiterated the CBI’s call for the agency workers directive
qualification period to be increased from six weeks to a year, and said he was
encouraged by reports in Personnel Today that the DTI is considering this.
"This directive must not damage the commercial interests of placing
temps," Cridland added. "Our argument is a technical one and we don’t
apologise for this. If the EU does get this wrong, it will destroy the temps
market in the UK."
The research finds most firms use agency workers to provide cover for
absence or short-term needs, with very few hiring large numbers of temporary
David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering
Employers’ Federation, has long campaigned against the current draft of the
agency workers directive. He welcomed the latest CBI findings as further proof
of the problems it could cause.
"This confirms the information we have – that the current draft would
have an adverse affect on business," he said. "Also, if the
commission abolished the working time opt-out, it would have serious
consequences for companies and individuals."
Cridland said the loss of the opt-out, which allows staff to choose to work
longer than 48 hours, would further threaten the flexibility of the UK’s labour
market, with 32 per cent of employers using it and 19 per cent ‘regularly’
The report shows that around 40 per cent of respondents think that losing
the opt-out would have a serious impact on business, and among those, 80 per
cent feel it would undermine competitiveness.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s employee relations
adviser Mike Emmott agreed the temps directive would harm the jobs market, and
said it could have a negative effect on the long-term unemployed or
However, he said the consequences of losing the opt-out had been
exaggerated, and that abandoning it entirely was still only one option
available to Europe.
"There’s still a long way to go on the opt-out. Even if it was lost it
wouldn’t necessarily have the impact that the CBI talks about. Essentially,
it’s a belt-and-braces approach to cutting bureaucracy and avoiding
tribunals," he said.
The TUC claims the agency workers directive is essential if the UK’s
temporary staff are to have the pay, conditions and employment protection they
deserve. And it blames the Working Time Directive opt-out for contributing to
the UK’s long-hours culture and for hindering attempts to improve productivity.
To highlight its concerns, it launched a campaign against long hours last
week by asking people to use a new telephone hotline and website to report
abuses of long-hours protection.
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, said that retaining the opt-out has
led to more than 350,000 people having no choice about working very long hours.
"What makes me angry is that people cannot see the UK’s very long hours
are a symptom of something sick about our workplaces. They’re a symptom of
badly organised, unproductive workplaces," he said.
"We work the longest hours in Europe, yet other countries are more
productive and earn more."
The argument is set to run and run over the coming year.
The European Commission is currently reviewing the UK’s opt-out and is due
to publish its recommendations in November. Meanwhile, the fight will continue
over the Agency Workers Directive, which is stalled at the EU Council of
Ministers after opposition from the UK Government.
Looking for common ground over EU legislation…
CBI ‘The arguments aren’t new, but
the evidence is. We’re not anti-legislation, but what we have a problem with is
badly-crafted legislation. We support rights for workers, but this cannot be
introduced in its current form without damaging the economy’ John Cridland, CBI
TUC ‘The UK’s very long hours are a symptom of something sick… They’re a
symptom of badly organised, unproductive workplaces’ Brendan Barber, TUC
EEF ‘If the commission abolished the
working time opt-out, it would have serious consequences for companies and
CIPD "Even if [the opt-out] was
lost it wouldn’t have the impact the CBI talks about. It’s a belt-and-braces
approach to cutting bureaucracy’
Mike Emmott, CIPD
The CBI’s key findings
45 per cent of employers would offer fewer assignments if the
temporary workers directive is introduced in its current form
59 per cent said the temporary workers directive would impose
43 per cent said it would reduce competitiveness through
additional bureaucracy, while 32 per cent believe it will damage flexibility
32 per cent of employers have used the opt-out of the Working
40 per cent believe any loss of the opt-out would have a
serious impact on business
57 per cent of employers cited people management as crucial to
a firm’s competitive advantage
56 per cent identified management skills as the main source of
Source: CBI and Pertemps
Employment Trends Survey 2003