It can be a miserable being an agency worker. As a temporary teaching assistant in inner London schools, I would traipse halfway across London on my way to a job before finding that my booking had been cancelled last minute, with no compensation. As a supply TA, permanent staff sometimes didn’t bother learning my name, instead referring to me as ‘the Agency’ for expediency. Pretty unnecessary, given that I was wearing a name badge at the time! I would overhear staff room chatter that I was taking home a packet, other staff not realising that the agency I worked for was creaming off a percentage of my wages and I didn’t receive holiday or sick pay either.
My story is by no means unique; agency and temporary workers are on the rise, especially in agricultural, social care, educational and hospitality sectors. The number of temporary workers increased by 89,000 in the two years to end of December 2012, to reach 1.6 million. And it’s widely recognised these official stats seriously underestimate the overall numbers of agency workers. Moreover, the UK’s temporary workforce has climbed by 230,000 since 2005, while permanent jobs have fallen by 8,000, according to the TUC.
Labour’s policy review consultation sets out some commendable aims to improve the lot of agency workers in its next term in government, but shies away from some of the underlying questions we should be asking about this increasingly common form of employment. How has the casualisation of labour become so normal? And, despite the genuine need of a minority of businesses for flexible labour, is it right that a growing part of our workforce should be seen as disposable and replaceable, without equal rights to sick pay, holiday pay, job security and access to workplace representation?
Much of the policy review consultation document tells us what we already know. There is currently a loophole in EU law known as the ‘Swedish derogation’ which is being exploited in the UK so that tens of thousands of agency workers being paid less than permanent staff while doing the same job – up to £135 a week less, in fact.
As we covered on the Fabian Review in January this year, Miliband will take action to ensure that there is no exemption from equal pay. Going further, I think that Labour should make sure parity starts from day one, and make sure there are effective anti-avoidance measures in place.
Framing his announcement within the immigration and ‘race to the bottom’ debate, Miliband’s top line on agency workers is to end the “chronic dependency” on cheap low skilled foreign labour in Britain.
While this is an important narrative for Labour, agency employment is not just an issue for migrant workers. It’s shocking that the use of agency workers by government employers is becoming more and more common, for example. George Osborne’s celebrated national employment figures are in fact being driven by the fact that we’re becoming a nation reliant on short-term, insecure jobs. Third party agencies are the only real winners, brokering employment arrangements that earn them a tidy chunk of each workers’ pay packet, or else working on commission.
Other aspects of parity are not covered by Labour’s policy consultation. It’s not always possible to receive statutory sick pay on very short contracts. Holiday entitlement is often rolled up in your take-home pay, so that workers are less likely to be able to afford a real break and end up working themselves to the bone. People who only work a couple of months in a year can find they get no benefit rights for the national insurance contributions they have paid. If the party truly wants to protect one of the most vulnerable sections of the UK workforce, it must address these points.
And if something goes wrong, the vast majority of temporary agency workers are not entitled to redundancy pay or to claim unfair dismissal, which are rights available to employees. So let’s accompany the tightening up of employment law with better enforcement of regulations. This will involve taking immediate action to improve individual’s awareness of the rights they already have. When Labour writes elsewhere in the policy consultation document that they “will explore ways to ensure workers have access to justice”, they carefully avoid committing to scrapping the coalition’s policy to charge claimants for employment tribunals.
In the age of disposable coffee cups, pay-as-you-go contracts and flexible employment, offering your labour on a non-committal, no-strings basis is usually not a question of free choice, but a cruel necessity of modern capitalism. Many workers would dearly love the chance to find more reliable employment, but cannot. There’s real work to be done. In their first weeks in office, Labour should actively encourage businesses to offer more permanent contracts, and curb the gross overuse of agency staff in public sector positions.