Temporary sanity is the key to agency worker row

If two groups of people disagree about something you can’t do much better than locking them in a room until some semblance of an agreement is reached. And so it goes with the stand-off over agency workers between employer groups and their trade union counterparts.

The CBI argues that increasing the employment rights of temporary workers will undermine the UK’s flexible labour market. The unions contend that the exploitation of 1.4 million temps in the UK is a widespread and growing problem. And while the TUC is requesting equal rights for agency staff from day one, the CBI is suggesting one year.

Clearly some balance needs to be struck.

The second reading of Labour MP Andrew Miller’s Bill for the equal treatment of temporary workers will be heard in the Commons on Friday 22 February and has growing Labour Party support.

Gordon Brown appears to be forestalling what some predicted could have been the biggest backbench protest since he moved into Number 10, with the suggestion of a new commission for agency workers’ rights, similar to the Low Pay Commission that advises the government on minimum wage levels.

Commissioners from the two sides would then have to thrash it out until reaching some kind of compromise. And all being well, conscientious employers will continue to use agencies to plug seasonal demand without getting entangled in red tape, and less reputable employers will find it harder to take advantage of vulnerable staff.

However, Europe will have the final decision. And when its presidency of the EU begins in July, France is likely to resume its proposal for the Agency Workers Directive to hand temps equal employment rights after only six days.

Let’s hope that once Whitehall and Brussels have made up their minds, the resulting legislation does not serve to somehow strengthen the right of agency nurses to be paid £120 per hour.

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