EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Temporary agency work talks break down

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Talks between the central European-level social partners on the issue of temporary agency work broke down definitively in May 2001 despite renewed attempts to reach agreement over the previous month. The EU Employment and Social Policy Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, has stated that she will issue draft Community legislation in this field in the near future.

Talks on the issue of an agreement on temporary agency work between the central European-level social partners – the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe ( UNICE)/European Association of Craft and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) - commenced in May 2000 (EU0005245N), following a consultation process over possible legislation in this area launched by the European Commission. The negotiations were difficult, largely due to the complex and "triangular" nature of the temporary agency employment relationship, involving the employee, the temporary work agency and the user company. The talks broke down at the end of March 2001 (EU0104206N), but following a meeting between the Employment and Social Policy Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, the UNICE president, Georges Jacobs, and the ETUC general secretary, Emilio Gabaglio, on 6 April 2001 (EU0105211N), the talks resumed, working to a deadline of May 2001.

However, as May progressed, it became clear that consensus was proving elusive. On 21 May, UNICE issued a statement to the effect that the talks had broken down over the issue of the definition of a comparable worker for the purposes of equal treatment of temporary agency workers. The UNICE president maintained that although his organisation had offered to grant temporary agency workers legal protection against discrimination, it was not happy with ETUC's insistence that a comparable worker in the user company should be used as a point of reference. He stated that: "In some countries, temporary workers have an indefinite work contract with the agency and are paid by their employers even in the absence of a mission in a user company. It would be totally unjustified to compared them with a worker in the user company. Despite all our efforts to try to find a compromise solution, ETUC has proved intransigent on this point, thereby rendering an agreement impossible." However, Mr Jacobs stressed that "this in no way places a question mark over UNICE's commitment to the European social dialogue."

ETUC also issued a statement on 21 May, blaming UNICE for the breakdown in the talks. ETUC maintains that it would be fair to use user company employees as a reference, given that temporary agency workers are placed at the disposition of other companies by temporary work agencies: "This means that for basic employment conditions such as pay, working time, and health and safety, the point of reference for equal treatment is with comparable workers in the user company, as is already the case in the majority of Member States."

UEAPME expressed its "disappointment" over the breakdown of negotiations, but stated that it too disagreed with ETUC's proposal relating to comparable workers. Benne Van Popta of the UEAPME negotiating team, stated that in future negotiations on non-legally binding agreements "could be a more fruitful approach in the European social dialogue".

Commissioner Diamantopoulou has taken note of the situation and stated that she will shortly be issuing a legislative proposal to regulate this area, focusing on equal treatment and social protection for temporary agency workers.

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