More than a million workers in the United Kingdom who work through employment agencies are seeing their hopes dashed that a new European Union law would improve their situation. In fact many employers are using the occasion to deepen the exploitation of these workers and insecurity of their livelihoods.
Agency workers, are found in many sectors from private manufacturing to government jobs where they often work alongside others directly employed, but for lower pay and with worse conditions. It’s not uncommon for them to work under these circumstances for years. They can be sent home or fired at any time without notice.
The new Agency Workers Directive that went into effect in the UK October 1 says that after 12 weeks at the same workplace, agency workers must get the same pay and conditions as directly employed workers.
The number of agency workers has mushroomed in recent years. While no official figure exists, the Daily Telegraph estimates that out of a workforce of 29 million, 1.4 million work under employment agency contracts.
Some 2.4 million are officially unemployed in the country; an additional 1.2 million people work part time because they are unable to find full-time work. The expanding number of agency workers, many of whom don’t get full-time hours, is a part of this picture.
“The agencies are using a loophole to avoid the new law,” James Connor told the Militant outside the Jaguar Land Rover car plant in Halewood. Connor is one of 686 workers employed through Staffline agency to work for DHL Exel Supply Chain, which handles the shipping of parts to Jaguar and Land Rover suppliers.
Staffline workers receive Ã‚Â£200 ($312) a week less doing the same work than they would as direct DHL employees.
Staffline is pressuring these workers to individually sign contracts with the agency to skirt implementation of the new law, a common practice throughout Europe known as the “Swedish derogation.” Staffline and other employment agencies contend the new law does not apply to so-called permanent workers for the agencies.
The first 300 to sign are being told they will be guaranteed a five-day workweek, with the remainder getting only two days, reported the Liverpool Echo.
“They say we will now work with a permanent contract, but for the agency, not for DHL,” explained Carlos Kowalska. “The agency is saying we can be assigned to work at other places and therefore we’re not linked to workers in this factory.”
In response Connor says “loads have joined the union.” He went to a Unite union meeting held to protest the new contract. Some 500 Staffline workers have signed up for the union, Carol Devereux, an organizer for Unite, the country’s largest union, told the Militant.
Of the 3,000 workers at the Liverpool Jaguar plant, 686 are employed by Staffline workers, and 1,000 production-line assemblers work for Manpower, another agency, earning just 80 percent of the directly employed rate.
At McVities biscuit plant in Manchester, 150 workers employed through the Prime Time agency, the author of this article among them, have no guaranteed hours and work alongside 600 company workers.
“I class it as lucky if I get two shifts in,” said Liam Gilbert. “McVities workers get a full week and are paid at least 50 percent more.”
Agency workers at McVities often get texts a few hours before work to tell them they are not needed.
Kevin Groves protested, “You don’t get proper notice if you get cancelled a shift.”
The lower wages and job insecurity of agency workers is used as a lever against the conditions of those directly employed. For example, bosses at the Park Cake Bakery in Oldham have set up a two-tier system among their direct employees. New hires get minimum wage with no guaranteed hours, said Roy Streeter, regional officer of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union.
“This legislation was supposed to protect agency workers, but really it’s putting more at risk,” Streeter told the Militant. In response, the union is organizing a strike vote for the 500 directly employed workers. As is generally the case, agency workers at Park Cake are not organized by the union.
“A third of employers are planning to avoid the new rules by ending agency workers contracts in their eleventh week,” reported the Daily Telegraph. For all its loopholes, bosses oppose the Agency Workers Directive. David Frost, director of the British Chambers of Commerce, urges postponement of “this kind of red tape.” Prime Minister David Cameron wants to dilute the law, according to the Telegraph, which contends the law will cost Ã‚Â£2 billion and “derail the British recovery.”