Agency workers have been in the headlines over the last couple of years, with several high-profile cases dealing with whether a worker is employed by the client that they are assigned to by an agency. This has resulted in pressure being placed on the UK Government by both the Trade Unions and the European Parliament to introduce legislation to protect agency workers. The government has finally succumbed to this pressure and agreed proposals with the unions, which should become law by 2010. There are an estimated 1.4 million agency workers in the UK so this proposed change to the law will have a significant impact on many employers.
Agency workers will gain employment rights after 12 weeks under the new proposals. They will qualify for the same pay and conditions as permanent workers and also receive equal treatment in relation to notice of termination, training, notification of vacancies and grievance procedures, but not other benefits such as sick pay, maternity pay and pensions.
The government and the unions have also agreed that there should be measures to stop employers from avoiding the new legislation, for example, by changing a job description just before the legislation comes into force.
The reaction to the proposals has, understandably, been mixed. The unions are happy, saying that the changes recognise the fact that agency workers currently get a bad deal and that legislation is required to protect them. However, employer-related organisations, such as the British Chamber of Commerce, say the changes will undermine the advantage the UK has in having a flexible workforce.
Consultation will continue over the next year or so in relation to the mechanisms for resolving disputes arising out of the new legislation, together with compliance and anti-avoidance measures.
The proposals undoubtedly will cause difficulties to employers. However, the new law is unlikely to come into force until 2010, giving employers some time to correct any discrepancies in the pay between permanent and agency workers. Users of higher paid agency workers in IT, engineering and other professional areas are unlikely to be affected as those workers will already be receiving higher salaries. It is the users of lower paid ‘temps’ such as cleaning staff that will find they will have to adjust their pay scales or face claims.
We will keep you informed of the progress of the consultation on the proposals and provide further advice when the changes become more clear.