EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Government and social partners agree on equal treatment for agency workers in EU directive

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In May 2008, the UK government reached agreement with the main employer and trade union organisations on the implementation of equal treatment for temporary agency workers. The move facilitated political agreement at European level on both the temporary agency work directive and the revision of the working time directive.

On 20 May 2008, the UK government announced that it had reached an agreement with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on the implementation of equal treatment for temporary agency workers in the context of the long-running EU-level negotiations over the proposed directive on the issue. The move paved the way for political agreement on the directive at the EU’s Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) meeting on 9 June.

Key points of agreement

The government published a joint declaration with the CBI and TUC on ‘how fairer treatment for agency workers in the UK should be promoted, while not removing the important flexibility that agency work can offer both employers and workers’. Agreement was reached on the following points:

  • temporary agency workers will be entitled to equal treatment with directly-employed staff after 12 weeks in a given job;
  • equal treatment will encompass at least the basic working and employment conditions that would apply if workers had been recruited directly by the company to the same job, but will not include occupational social security schemes;
  • the government will consult the social partners regarding the implementation of the Directive for equal treatment of agency workers more generally – in particular, concerning dispute resolution mechanisms, arrangements for social partner agreements on the treatment of agency workers and measures to combat attempts to evade the aims of the legislation;
  • the government would engage with its European partners to seek agreement on the terms of the directive on the basis of the approach agreed with the CBI and TUC. The government hoped that EU-level agreement would be obtained in time for the necessary UK implementing legislation to be introduced in the next parliamentary session beginning in the autumn of 2008.

Political and social partner reaction

Announcing the agreement, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, John Hutton, said:

This is the right deal for Britain. Today’s agreement achieves our twin objectives of flexibility for British employers and fairness for workers. It will give people a fair deal at work without putting their jobs at risk or cutting off a valuable route into employment.

TUC’s General Secretary, Brendan Barber, commented that:

Today’s agreement is a victory for union campaigning. The issue of agency workers has been crying out for attention for far too long. Too many agency workers in the UK face unfair treatment and injustice. The agreement now opens the door to the much stronger legal protection that agency workers deserve.

The CBI’s Deputy Director-General, John Cridland, highlighted that temporary agency work

forms a central plank of the flexible labour market that is so important to our country’s prosperity. There has been a major risk of damaging legislation coming from Brussels, and the CBI has judged that the government’s proposals represent the least-worst outcome available for British business.

Mr Cridland also pointed out that over half of agency assignments would remain unaffected as they last less than 12 weeks.

The EU’s Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, emphasised that the agreement was

a milestone for social dialogue in the UK and an important step towards fair treatment of agency workers both in the UK and in Europe.

However, a number of employer bodies strongly criticised the agreement. The Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) said it was a ‘bad day for business’, and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) described the deal as a ‘cosy stitch-up between government and unions’. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) stated that it was a ‘disastrous deal’, while the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) saw it as ‘a bad deal for the country and a bad deal for business’.

Commentary

The agreement with the CBI and TUC was the outcome of growing pressure on the UK government to drop its opposition to the temporary agency work directive coming from its EU partners, trade unions and Labour members of parliament (MPs) (UK0712029I). A private member’s bill promoting equal rights for temporary agency workers, which Labour MP Andrew Miller put forward, attracted strong support among Labour MPs; nevertheless, it was withdrawn following the announcement of the agreement.

However, the deal was significant not only because of the compromise qualifying period for equal treatment of 12 weeks. The UK agreement in relation to the temporary agency work directive also provided the political basis for the continuation of the individual opt-out provision in the working time directive – a key objective of the UK government and the CBI – the two measures having been treated as a package by the EU presidency.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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