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SECRET AGENTS

27-02-2008

They are the "hidden" 1.4 million workers who keep the wheels industry and commerce moving. So should agency staff get the same rights as permanent employees asks Lynn Hawthorn?

The MP Andrew Miller has brought before Parliament a Private Members’ Bill to propose that temporary and agency workers be given the same employment rights as permanent members of staff.

The Commons voted 147-11 in favour of putting forward the bill, but it is unlikely to receive government support and, instead, Gordon Brown has ‘pledged an inquiry.’

Industry chiefs are fearing that it will put up their costs and have threatened that any such move will only lead to job losses, as they will not be able to afford to pay sick leave and holiday pay to short-term workers.

However, of the MP’s who voted in favour, only 7 of them came from our area. So where does that leave the 1.4 million workers, thousands of them in the West Midlands and many of them women, who work in this way?

We traditionally think of ‘temps’ as secretarial and office workers, but many occupations now operate temporary or short-term contracts. Drivers, factory workers, ICT support are just a few examples and I’ve even heard of the Job Centre offering employment for 5 months, thus neatly side-stepping all the employment legislation around length of service.

If you look around any Midland town at the moment, there seems to be a frenzy of building, but who exactly is to occupy these town houses and apartments if more and more people work through agencies and so will be unable to obtain a mortgage on that basis?

I’m lucky in that my mortgage was close to completion when my primary school was closed by the local education authority (LEA) in August 2006 and I, along with many of my colleagues, was made redundant. The majority of us ended up working for supply agencies, which changed our financial arrangements totally, as most of us were the main wage-earners in our households.

The arrangement for agency work is, simply, that you get paid for the days on which you work. That may not be every day and any holiday is also unpaid. If you are ill and, therefore, unable to work, you may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, but that is very low.

Obviously, for me, there are 12 weeks in every year when I am unable to obtain work, as the schools are closed for holidays. The Job Centre sees this as my problem, as I have completed a ‘cycle’ (one year) and so anticipate being unemployed for those weeks and must ‘make (my) own financial arrangements.’

That is all very well, but the main issue that I face is pension. Teachers’ Superannuation, I am told, is one of the best pensions in the country, yet I am unable to pay into it (as I am not employed by the LEA but by the agency via the school) unless I paid the employers’ contribution as well, which would mean me working for virtually nothing!

Many agency and temporary workers do not even have a pension, because it takes too much out of their weekly/monthly wage and it is unaffordable. Similarly, many do not have the protection of a union, either because of cost or the feeling that they don’t ‘belong’ anywhere.

Gordon Brown has referred to the ‘Pension time bomb’, but chooses to turn a blind eye to the problem faced by over a million tax-paying workers in this country.

All of the Midlands councils have been forced to put up their rates of Council Tax. With the amount of schools being proposed for closure or amalgamation in the shires (Shropshire, Herefordshire & Worcestershire, Staffordshire), as well as the schools already gone in the Black Country boroughs, there will be many more professionals who are going to struggle to pay if they find themselves in the same situation as me through no fault of their own.

Those of us who work more than 16 hours per week, or earn over a certain amount, qualify for no benefits at all, but find our travelling expenses, and carbon footprint, rising.

I understand completely the concern by employers about the effect equalising rights will have on their finances (the same was said about the Minimum Wage), but these companies and organisations are getting skilled, flexible and professional staff at a discount.

They take advantage of setting up contracts under any timescale that would incur workers’ rights, yet expect – and regularly get - the same level of commitment from agency workers as they do from their permanent staff.

I don’t know what the answer is, but 1.4 million workers will be watching the progress of this ‘inquiry’ very closely and hoping that some consideration will be given to their conditions of employment, so that they may, at least, plan a more settled financial future.

(* The MP’s who voted in favour of the bill were Richard Burden - Birmingham Northfield; Khalid Mahmood - Birmingham Perry Barr;Sion Simon - Birmingham Erdington: Ken Purchase - Wolverhampton North East; John Spellar – Warley; David Winnick - Walsall North: and Lynda Waltho –Stourbridge)

See also Simon Gray’s article, “Agency Staff – The Second Class Workers

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