Agency workers play a vital role in our economy. It's time we gave them the protections they deserve
Agency workers make up a fundamental part of our economy, but they are too often seen – and treated – as expendable. My bill would ensure they are no longer treated as second best, writes Stephanie Peacock
It’s no secret that our economy and the jobs people do in it have changed rapidly over the last few years. Permanent jobs may still be the majority for now, but we’ve seen a boom in short-term and casual employment in the form of zero-hours contracts, pseudo-self-employment, fixed-term contracts and agency work.
When it comes to agency work a number of crucial economic sectors, not to mention our public services, are heavily reliant on workers who are supplied by a temporary work agency – a number that is expected to reach more than a million by 2020. Vast swathes of our public services depend on them; significant staff shortages across the NHS and schools, for instance, means agency workers have filled vital gaps in our healthcare and education systems.
Agency workers make up a significant and fundamental part of our economy, but all too often this appears to be a one-sided relationship. Despite the vital role the workers play, and regulations intended to protect both them and their fellow permanent staff from under-cutting, they are too often seen – and treated – as expendable, a convenience without commitment, and an easy way to cut corners.They’re often the first out of the door when companies seek to save money. They have fewer workplace rights and protections, not least on equal pay – so they find themselves paid less than permanent employees performing identical roles.
That’s why I’ll be bringing forward my Private Members’ Bill, the Employment and Workers Rights Bill, before the House next week for its Second Reading. It’s a simple bill with clear solutions to ensure agency workers aren’t treated as second best.
The first element of the Bill will ensure equal treatment for agency workers by ending the equal-pay exemption in the 2010 Agency Worker Regulations, known as the Swedish Derogation. The derogation was an opt-out requested by Sweden to ensure they could protect their system which offers greater rights and higher pay to agency workers but has since been used in the UK to pay agency workers less. A further exemption requires agency workers to have worked 12 weeks on a job to qualify for equal workplace rights, meaning workers undertaking the same role have fewer protections.
They’re not entitled to the same protections against unfair dismissal from their de-facto employer and end-user as they are from their agency, for example. They can be summarily dismissed, even after years at the same workplace. This is simply unfair. Agency workers undertaking roles identical to permanent employees should be entitled to the same pay, rights and protections from day one. My Bill will ensure that is the case.
The latter part of my Bill will tackle the exploitation of agency workers used effectively as permanent staff by employers who simply want to dodge the legal obligations they owe to normal employees. Time and time again I hear of agency workers being hired by companies to undertake the same role not just for weeks or months but for years on end, without any chance of a permanent contract.
This allows unscrupulous bosses to use agency staff for permanent work, for no reason but to take advantage of their inferior rights.
My Bill will require hirers to assess whether work will be required on an ongoing basis, in which case the agency worker is entitled to the offer of a permanent contract, closing the loophole that too many employers exploit at agency workers’ expense.
These aren’t huge changes, and they do not need to be partisan. My proposals build on key recommendations of the Taylor Review, which the government itself commissioned.
If they do not accept my Bill, it is for them to argue that two people working the same job with the same company should be entitled to different pay, rights and protections.
That is the issue my Bill addresses: levelling the playing field for agency workers, and ensure they can now go to work with the fair pay and protection they are long overdue.
Stephanie Peacock is Labour MP for Barnsley East. The second reading of the Employment and Workers’ Rights Bill is on Friday 27 April.