New regs represent the bare minimum of workers' rights

By Steve Sibbald, Monday 26 September 2011

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When it comes to wages and conditions for UK workers, agency staff are invariably at the bottom of the pile. They are also the workers most likely to be exploited and, in some cases, abused.

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So, while many employers may find it frustrating that new laws will give agency workers more rights in the workplace, on a human level it has actually been a long time coming.

In the printing industry, agency workers are most often found in binderies and press halls, where assistants usually work on ‘zero-hour contracts’, under which an employer does not guarantee the employee a fixed number of hours per week. Rather, the employee is expected to be on-call and receive compensation only for hours worked.

In virtually all cases, agency workers are paid less and do not enjoy any of the employment benefits of permanent employees.

Agency workers are also, disproportionately often, women, ethnic minorities and migrant workers – the most vulnerable workers in the UK. They are also the people the least likely to be able to defend themselves. From my experience, I know some are terrified of joining a union out of fear of not being given any further work; this is the UK in the 21st century, truly astounding.

Equal treatment
The roots of the Agency Workers Directive, and now the regulations, are an attempt to protect the most vulnerable. The ‘equal treatment’ after 12 weeks in the job, is not as good as it should be, but is better than it was, but the inevitable consequence is that more people will be employed on a permanent basis and enjoy the same security and benefits as a permanent employee.

Although it is often unspoken, we know that some printers use agency workers on a long-term basis specifically to avoid the costs associated with full-time staff and to make it easier to increase and decrease numbers quickly and cheaply; so any law that increases the number of permanent employees in the sector is more than welcome.

We also know that some employers are already doing their best to circumvent the legislation; they are changing existing arrangements and asking agency workers to sign derogations.

The legal advice that agencies and employers are receiving is very premature bearing in mind case law is yet to be established, but of course it will be the agency and the employer that take the risk and not the lawyer.

Unite will challenge dubious practises in court and, where the regulations are ignored or circumvented, it will take companies to task through procedure and, if necessary, ballot members to take action to support their colleagues.

While employers may have to make changes to adapt to this directive, ultimately it has been brought in to give a large number of people employed in the UK basic rights, the key word there is basic, at the end of the day nobody should be expected to work with anything less.

Steve Sibbald is national officer at Unite

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