Temporary agency workers in the European Union
A proposed EU Directive designed to protect temporary agency workers has been blocked by some Member States for more than five years. The ETUC and affiliated trade unions are demanding urgent agreement on the new law.
Temporary Agency Workers - who are they?
Temporary Agency Work is the most rapidly growing form of atypical work in the EU over the last 20 years. In Denmark, Italy, Spain and Sweden, the use of temporary agency workers has increased five-fold, and has at least doubled in most other countries, according to the Dublin-based European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. By 2000, 2% of workers in the old Member States (EU-15) were on temporary agency contracts. Each year, some 6 million people are on the agencies’ books at some time or other.
In the new EU Member States, this form of working is also on the increase, although few statistics are yet available. Slovenia, for example, passed legislation to authorise temporary work agencies in 1998, with new measures to protect workers in 2003. Since enlargement in May 2004, more opportunities for temporary agency workers from these countries have opened up in the EU-15, making it crucial to establish minimum standards to avoid undercutting of pay and working conditions.
More and more companies are using temporary agency work to cut costs and increase flexibility by allowing them to adjust their staffing needs at short notice. It helps employers to find workers with specific skills, as and when they want them, while avoiding recruitment and administration expenses. According to CIETT, the International Confederation of Temporary Work Businesses, companies most often use temporary agency workers to fill in for staff absences (27%).
The arrangement can also have benefits for individuals, enabling them to work flexibly when they want to, or gain experience in a specific sector. Young people under the age of 25 make up the largest category of temporary agency workers.
The nature of jobs varies between countries, as does the gender profile of workers. In the UK, some 80% of temporary agency work is in the service and public sectors, while three-quarters is in construction and manufacturing industry in France. In most of the EU-15, the majority of workers are male, but in all three Nordic countries there are more women, and proportions are roughly equal in the Netherlands and the UK.
Overall, research shows that a higher proportion of temporary agency workers are unhappy with their jobs and conditions than permanent staff. Many do not choose this way of working, but would prefer secure employment.
How does the system work?
Temporary agency work involves a third party, an agency, which acts as an intermediary between the worker and the user company. Although contractual regulations vary in different countries, in most places it is the agency that employs the workers and then hires them out to user companies on a temporary basis, as needed.
Because temporary staff move frequently from one workplace to another, it is not easy to secure collective representation rights. However, trade unions have concluded national deals in a number of EU-15 countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, France and Spain.
What are the problems?
Compared to all other forms of employment, temporary agency work has the worst record for working conditions, judged on a number of indicators, including repetitive labour, and the supply of information to employees about workplace risks.
Compared with other staff, temporary agency workers:
Have less control over the sort of work they do and how they do it;
Get less training;
Have a higher rate of workplace accidents and are less well-informed about safety;
Do more shift work and have less time to complete jobs.
In most countries, agency work means greater job insecurity. In France, for example, the average assignment lasts only two weeks.
As for pay, although there are some examples of temporary agency workers earning higher rates than permanent staff (for example, agency nurses in Scandinavia), most evidence points to lower wages for similar work, coupled with exclusion from bonuses and benefits awarded to other employees.
The proposed Temporary Agency Work Directive
The growing need for a legal framework offering protection to temporary agency workers is clear. The European Commission responded in 2002 by proposing a Directive laying down the principle of non-discrimination against temporary workers, aiming to set minimum EU-wide standards and create a level playing field for companies in different Member States.
It states that a temporary agency worker may not be treated less favourably, in terms of basic working conditions (working time, rest periods, holidays, pay etc), than a permanent member of staff doing a ‘comparable’ job in the same firm. But in order to accommodate national law and practices, it also allows exceptions to be made where workers have a permanent contract with an agency, or collective agreements provide adequate protection.
Background to action
The European Parliament and Council already adopted resolutions in favour of action to protect temporary workers more than 20 years ago. The European Commission submitted a draft Directive in 1982 that was never adopted.
In 1990, the Commission put forward proposals to create a minimum level of consistency between different types of contracts, and proposed legislation in three areas: part-time work, fixed-term contracts and temporary work.
In 1995, the Commission launched a process of consultation with the European social partners - employers’ and workers’ representatives - leading to the start of negotiations between the two sides a year later. The social partners reached agreement in the areas of part-time work and fixed-term contracts, which were formalised as EU Directives in 1997 and 1999 respectively.
In May 2000, the social partner organisations ETUC, UNICE and CEEP launched talks on a temporary work agreement, but after a year of negotiations it became clear that the employers were not going to accept that temporary agency workers’ conditions should be on an equal footing with staff in the user company.
In the absence of a deal between the two sides of industry, in 2002, the European Commission put forward its own proposal for a Temporary Agency Work Directive.
Since then, despite efforts to find a compromise, the stubborn opposition of a minority of Member State governments has prevented progress in this crucial area.
Attempts to break the deadlock by the Finnish EU Presidency in July-December 2006, and more recently by the Portuguese Presidency in December 2007, were both unsuccessful.
The ETUC view
The ETUC deplores the stalemate that has prevented adoption of this essential piece of social legislation since 2002. Delegates at the ETUC’s 10th Congress, in Prague in May 2003, issued a declaration expressing their “strong discontentment and incomprehension”, and singling out the attitude of four EU Member States: Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the UK, for special criticism.
“This Directive is important to assume a regulation of this form of work guaranteeing equal treatment in employment conditions for these workers,” it affirmed.
In the Seville Manifesto, adopted at the 2007 Congress, the ETUC reaffirmed its commitment to fight for adoption of the Directive.
Trade unions throughout the EU have been lobbying hard to get this law approved. In the UK, for example, trade unionists thought they had achieved a breakthrough in July 2004, when they secured agreement from the government to lift its longstanding objections.
Until this Directive becomes law, the growing army of temporary agency workers across the EU is at risk of unfair treatment and discrimination in the workplace - a situation that should not exist in Social Europe.
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