Trade unions push for law to protect temporary agency workers

In December 2007, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions mounted pressure on the Irish government to introduce domestic legislation providing equal treatment for temporary agency workers. The move followed a failure by EU ministers to reach agreement on the EU temporary agency workers’ directive in early December. However, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation opposes the trade union demand for equal pay in this regard.

The increased pressure being mounted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) for temporary agency worker rights coincides with the failure of EU ministers to reach agreement on the temporary agency workers’ directive on 5 December 2007. However, the proposed directive could still be back on the agenda sometime in 2008.


The first proposal for a directive regulating temporary agency work was issued by the European Commission in 1982. However, agreement has not yet been reached on the directive, even though most of the EU Member States support the proposals to provide equal treatment rights to temporary agency workers similar to those enjoyed by people directly employed in the same undertaking. To date, equal treatment rights have been opposed by a blocking minority of countries – notably Ireland, Poland and the UK.

The Irish trade unions view the EU ministers’ failure to agree an agency workers’ directive as only a temporary setback in their campaign to prevent the alleged exploitation of vulnerable workers (IE0710059I). In terms of the extent of temporary agency work in the Republic of Ireland, the country’s largest trade union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), estimates that there are 30,000 temporary agency workers and 520 agencies in Ireland out of a labour force of just over two million.

‘Deal breaker’

In advance of new national social partnership negotiations, which are expected to commence in February 2008, ICTU has framed the issue of equal treatment of temporary agency workers as a key ‘deal breaker’. In other words, the chief negotiators on the trade union side see progress in this area as being vital for continuing with the social partnership process.

Meanwhile, the trade unions are continuing to exert pressure on the Irish government. A letter sent by ICTU to the Minister for Labour Affairs, Billy Kelleher, after the December 2007 EU ministerial meeting, refers to the: ‘very deep resentment at your action, on government instructions no doubt, in opposing efforts to reach a compromise on the EU Agency Workers’ Directive.’

Of particular concern to ICTU ‘is the way in which agency work is redefining the employment relationship, undermining all of the progress we have made at EU and national level to improve terms and conditions of workers’. An example of this, ICTU suggests,

is how agency work can undermine equality rights enshrined in the EU treaties, directives and in national law. This discrimination happens where an employer employs their staff on an ongoing basis through an employment agency; in these circumstances, the employee does not have an entitlement to the same terms and conditions as the other workers that they are working with.

ICTU adds that:

The ‘comparator’ requirements set out in the legislation state that agency workers must compare themselves to other agency workers rather than the workers they are working beside. The consequence of this loophole is that all of a worker’s equality rights can be overcome simply by staffing through an agency.

Trade union demands

To rectify this situation, ICTU is calling for the following legal rights, namely to:

  • provide temporary agency workers with an entitlement to equal treatment, pay and conditions as those of permanent staff, so that such workers cannot be used to drive down pay and conditions in general or to undermine equality rights;
  • restrict the length of time that an employer can fill a post with agency staff – insecure agency work must not be allowed to replace secure employment;
  • prohibit the use of temporary agency workers in certain circumstances – for example, to replace striking workers;
  • make both the temporary work agency and end user employer jointly and severally liable, so that workers can be guaranteed that their rights are enforced;
  • prohibit agencies from charging the employee for any aspect of the recruitment or placement process and to ban unfair discriminatory ‘profiling’ practices;
  • license temporary work agencies in accordance with a statutory code of practice and require them to place a ‘bond’ so that funds are available to secure the payment of wages owed to agency workers;
  • require any agency operating in Ireland – regardless of where it is based – to be licensed and to comply with the code;
  • make it an offence for employers to use unlicensed agencies;
  • increase sanctions on employers who ignore workers’ rights and improve redress for the workers concerned.

Employers’ position

In contrast, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) views temporary agency work as a critical part of the labour supply for key sectors in the Irish economy. Moreover, IBEC believes that if temporary agency workers were paid the same as their permanent colleagues, the margin required by the agency to provide its service would still need to be paid. This would mean that a much more significant premium would have to be paid to allow for the flexibility of agency working than is often currently the case, IBEC suggests.

Tony Dobbins, IRN Publishing

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