The UK has about 1.7 million temporary workers, yet the market remains one of the most unregulated in the EU. In an attempt, it says, to improve working conditions and develop the attractiveness of the sector, the European Commission adopted a draft directive on 20 March proposing a minimum level of protection for temps.
The basic principles
Essentially, the draft says employers will be obliged to provide equivalent rates of pay and benefits to ‘comparable’ permanent workers once temps have been employed for six weeks. The draft directive also stipulates that temps must be informed about job vacancies with the employer, and be allowed access to what it calls “social services” (for example canteens and childcare facilities).
Any clauses in employment contracts varying or obstructing these rights will be null and void.
The industry response
The plan has been criticised by the CBI and the CIPD, who say it does not provide a sensible balance between protection for agency workers and flexibility for employers. They say employers will stop using temps because of the added legal responsibilities.
The measures could therefore undermine the market rather than promote it. Agencies would be less likely to offer a quick solution to staffing problems, and employers would be more likely to demand more of their permanent staff. Employers claim they will suffer a huge rise in costs and enormous practical difficulties in, say, giving pension rights and other benefits to temps.
Interestingly, the draft has been produced while there is no agreement between workers’ representatives and employers operating at a European level over the concept of a ‘comparable employee’. Attempts to arrive at a workable definition have failed in the past, but rather than work on this aspect, the draft directive has been published in the hope that agreement will be reached in the future.
The reaction from temporary recruitment agencies has been mixed. Some say the proposals will force smaller agencies out of business; others see it as a golden opportunity to negotiate contracts for services with employers and employ the temps themselves.
While this seems reasonable, the increased costs associated with equal treatment would still have to be passed on to employers. Other agencies claim they will lobby the Government for changes, because they envisage having to bear huge administrative costs to revise terms of employment for every placement. They also argue that the six-week qualifying period is too short and will tempt employers to dispense with temps before the end of the six weeks to save costs.
The draft is now before the European Parliament and each member state for approval. It could become law this year.