Strong growth in temporary agency work

The number of temporary agency workers in Denmark has increased 10-fold in the decade up to 2002, and there now around 35,000 of them. Most work in the health sector and have reasonable employment conditions, while many are unskilled workers and office workers in other sectors, who often do not have the same good conditions. The issue is attracting growing interest from the social partners.

The use of temporary agency workers in Denmark has been steadily increasing. In 1992, there were 73 registered temporary work agencies with about 3,000 agency workers, which grew to 396 agencies with 21,000 employees BY 1999 (according to figures from Statistics Denmark [Danmarks Statistik]). If the growth rate recorded since 1997 has continued, there are probably about 370 agencies with about 35,000 workers in December 2002. In 2001, the agencies' turnover was more than DKK 3 billion - a 10-fold increase over a decade.

Three main categories

Five years ago, the majority of temporary agency workers were office workers, but now doctors and nurses are at the top of the list. The break-down of temporary agency workers, in terms of the percentage of agencies' turnover they represented in 2001, is set out in the table below.

Category of temporary agency workers, as % of agencies' turnover, 2001
Health and care 34%
Production, warehouses and drivers 26%
Office work and administration: 22%
Other 18%

In 2001, no other single category of worker accounted for more than 10% of turnover. Although health sector workers are the biggest individual group, there are – when added together – a much larger number of unskilled workers and office workers - organised by the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark, (Handels –og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund, HK) - among temporary agency workers. For example, the number of agency workers in the transport and service section of the General Workers’ Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD) is increasing, especially among drivers and warehouse workers. SiD has concluded a collective agreement with the employer's organisation in this areas, Danish Commerce and Service (Dansk Handel og Service, DHS), and also with the employers' organisation for transport and logistics (Arbejdgiverforeningen for Transport og Logistik, ATL). It is possible for agencies to 'shop around' among several collective agreements, either because they are members of several employers' organisations or because they are not members of any employers' organisation at all.

Sub-standard working conditions

Trade unions report an increase in the use of temporary agency workers in enterprises. The National Union of Female Workers (Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund, KAD) finds that many of its members who work for a temporary work agency are posted to jobs in user companies in industry, where they work with other members of KAD who are permanent staff. The work is the same for the two groups – but not the terms and conditions. However, many temporary work agencies have committed themselves to observing the collective agreement in the industrial sector. Similarly, the employers' associations belonging to the Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI) have stated that temporary agency workers in their enterprises are to be covered by the relevant collective agreement. This means that they will, in most cases, be paid the same wage as the permanent staff. However, when it comes to such matters as pensions, extra holidays, and pay in connection with sickness and maternity, the agency workers do not enjoy the same rights. They rarely obtain the seniority required in the same enterprise in order to enjoy these benefits. In practice, this means that a temporary agency worker may have a long working life without earning entitlement to any form of pension, due to their frequent changes of workplace.

Challenge for the unions

The mobility of temporary agency workers means that it has been difficult for the trade unions to organise them and they have not, until now, taken any specific action in this field. However, the increase in the number of temporary agency workers means that the unions have been forced to react and SiD has focused on this form of work as a major area of action. According to SiD, a possible solution could be to conclude sectoral agreements with the employers' organisations which include temporary work agencies among their members. However, many agencies are not affiliated to any organisation and in those cases SiD will have to conclude collective agreements with the individual agencies - a very demanding task.

Temporary agency workers in office work, organised in HK, face an even more disadvantageous situation compared with regular employees than do agency workers in other sectors. Most members of HK are salaried employees and covered by the Act on the Relationship between Employers and White-collar Workers and the rights guaranteed under this legislation. However, in a specific case, the Danish Supreme Court has ruled that temporary agency workers are not be considered as salaried employees/white-collar workers as defined in this Act. This means that temporary agency workers who are members of HK do not, for instance, have the right to such benefits as full pay during sickness or holiday, or the dismissal notice periods laid down in the Act.

Commentary

The increase in the number of temporary agency workers can be seen as an expression of the fact that enterprises have chosen this solution to the problem of access of the necessary flexible labour. The enterprises are thus satisfied with agency work and this makes it even more important that the social partners conclude collecting agreements in this field - partly to ensure that agency workers have the same rights in terms of employment conditions as their colleagues employed under permanent contracts, and partly so as not to undermine existing agreements by allowing the recruitment of cheaper labour not covered by any collective agreement. As is the case in relation to other categories of employees employed on 'non-standard' terms, the trade unions have for too long neglected changes in forms of work organisation and have given their attention exclusively to traditional 'core' groups of employees.

In December 2002, the Minister for Employment tabled a bill to amend the Act on the Relationship between Employers and White-collar Workers, with a view to giving temporary workers the same rights as ordinary employees within the framework of the Act. This is, however, a consequence of the implementation of the EU Directive (1999/70/EC) on fixed-term contracts (EU9907181F) and it is doubtful whether it also applies to temporary agency workers, who would be covered by the proposal for a Directive on working conditions for temporary (agency) workers (EU0204205F), currently under discussion. In the EU debate, no agreement has yet been on, for instance, the duration of employment required for agency workers to enjoy the same right as ordinary employees.

The HK and SiD trade unions also have differing opinions as to how the final Directive on temporary agency workers should, when and if adopted, be implemented in Denmark. SiD wishes to regulate pay and working conditions only through collective agreements, while HK would like to see the Directive on working conditions for temporary agency workers implemented through the new dual method recently used for transposing EU social Directives (DK0106125F), with legislation implementing the Directive in fields that are not covered by any collective agreement.

For some people, working as a temporary agency worker is not a bad choice. Doctors and nurses have very good conditions and for them it is a voluntary choice. On the other hand, unskilled workers and office workers have significantly poorer conditions than their colleagues employed under open-ended contracts in user companies, and for the majority the question is whether working as an agency worker is a free choice at the cost of the benefits offered by a regular job which implies security and a permanent framework. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS).

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