2003 - Agency workers’ directive
Within a few
days of each other last month, two companies in
very different markets announced changes to their
employment base in the UK. Corus, the Anglo-Dutch
steelmaker, announced 1,150 job losses in plant
closures, while Pizza Hut said it was to create
3,500 jobs as it opened a series of new outlets.
Steel to pizza. This seems indicative
of the shifting labour market in the past decade
or two. I remember interviewing workers at the
former North East Shipbuilders in Wearside in
1988. The only options for those losing their
jobs were in retailing, such as check-out operators,
or in warehousing jobs. In succeeding years I
spoke to Welsh miners after their pit closed,
who complained that the only jobs were those in
a chicken-packing factory. I met call-centre workers
who used to have jobs in textiles. Steel, coal,
shipbuilding and textiles, those bedrock sectors
of the industrial revolution, have all retreated
like endangered species.
Does it matter? To communities
such as Stocksbridge in Sheffield, and Rotherham,
where 700 steelworkers will lose their jobs, it
certainly does. On a broader scale, if new industries
are providing more and better jobs I suppose it
would be Luddite to complain about change. But
how can we compare the large-scale production
and sale of comfort food with that of steel and
ships? You could take pride in the launching of
an ocean liner. How much joy can you get from
serving doughy pizza?.
The comparison came to mind last
week when I was looking into the progress of the
European Union's agency workers' directive. Underpinning
the directive, which is still experiencing difficulties
in its drafting phase, is the commitment of the
Lisbon summit in 2000, with its promise to create
20m new jobs across the EU. The promise would
be worthy were it not so steeped in policies of
These policies are anchored to
the idea that a permanent job is the most important
career goal of any right-thinking European and
that agency working can be regulated so that temporary
workers have every opportunity to convert their
jobs to permanent positions. Nowhere in European
social policy is there any concession that some
temporary workers may prefer their status, or
that anyone in a permanent job could contemplate
the apparently less secure existence of contract
and temporary work.
Yet such people exist. You find
them in interim management, in information technology
jobs and in other professions . I know of teachers
who have resigned their permanent jobs to take
up "supply" teaching where, usually
for higher rates, they fill in for vacant permanent
Such interim positions can appeal
because they attract a premium rate - the price
that can be charged for flexibility. But the lawmakers
in Europe do not appear to understand this concept.
The agency workers' directive has no greater ambition
than making a case for parity. It takes the view
that, in the past, temporary workers have been
regarded as second-class employees with few rights.
To be fair, the statistics support this: the Trades
Union Congress has estimated that temporary workers
in the UK on average earn £110 a week less
than permanent colleagues.
The aim of the directive, therefore,
is to secure a minimum level of protection for
temporary workers. At the same time it will include
revisions of existing restrictions on temporary
work in certain job categories, improvements in
training, parity of pay and conditions after six
weeks with an employer and better access to permanent
work for the temporary employee.
Jerome Caille, chief executive
of Adecco, the world's largest temporary employment
agency, has been watching developments in the
directive closely since the company is well placed
to benefit from removal of state restrictions
on agency workers. However, he is anxious that
the directive recognises the economic advantages
in promoting a more flexible labour market.
"The role of an employment
agency is not to guarantee a job. It is a guarantee
of income and a guarantee of employability. Our
job is not to be obliged to place a person long-term
at a company, it is to help a person develop his
or her career through different assignments so
as to guarantee the continuity of income but not
continuity in the same position," says Mr
Caille. There is a difference, then, between this
"professional temp" approach and the
"temp to perm" assumption among the
employment ministries of some EU states.
The two main sticking-points
in discussions on the draft directive have been
parity of pay for agency workers (opposed by UK
employer organisations) and proposals that member
states review their existing restrictions on agency
work. In Spain, Germany, Italy and France, for
example, an assignment is limited to 12 months
- to prevent the substitution of permanent workers
by temporary workers. It can, though, lead to
a situation where an agency has to remove an employee
after a year.
Other restrictions in some countries
are focused on specific jobs, such as construction,
on the premise that temporary workers are not
qualified and constitute a safety risk. Adecco,
on the other hand, argues that such restrictions
are based on outdated assumptions that temporary
workers are cheap, unskilled casual labour. Mr
Caille says that it is in the interest of temporary
agencies to provide good-quality, trained employees.
"The salary level, the benefits level, the
training level should be key components of our
service. We don't sell low salaries; we sell a
flexible workforce," he says.
Some countries have been dealing
with restrictions. Germany approved legislation
in the autumn removing numerous obstacles to the
use of temporary workers that will be formalised
in law next year. France insists on equal pay
for equal jobs; but the law does not take seniority
into account so experienced temporary workers
are often engaged at entry-level salaries.
The EU is in a position to iron
out most of these national differences but it
should be doing so from the assumption that Europe
needs a labour market that can respond to large-scale
structural changes in employment.
A free market cannot uphold a
manufacturing base where businesses remain uncompetitive.
It remains to be seen, for example, whether the
UK can support a steel industry in the long term.
The real key to a healthy employment base is the
provision of education, training and solid opportunities
for meaningful work. The question of whether work
is temporary or permanent should be irrelevant.
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