Targeting temporary workers

Issue section: 

The recent gains of employment rights for temporary workers, such as the enforcement of equal pay and sick leave, have been a great step forward for a much under-represented section of the working class.

We should be in no doubt, however, that the motivation for this compromise. Gordon Brown and his big business pals intend to strengthen their hand in continuing their opposition to the proposed European Union (EU) Agency Workers Directive, which proposes far more progress.

Temporary workers remain largely unorganised and unions remain weak on the issue. Employers can offer lower pay and conditions to these workers as well as using them as a leverage point to drive down permanent workers' pay and conditions and to undermine militancy. As big businesses have recognised temporary workers as targets for exploitation, the number of agencies appearing on high streets has increased massively over the last few years.

Britain has over 1.4 million temporary or agency workers from both the public and private sectors. Agency workers are often some of the most vulnerable and young people.

The government, after negotiating and manoeuvring with the unions and the bosses' CBI, have announced that agency workers - following a 12-week "qualifying period" - will be entitled to employment rights such as sick leave, paid holidays, and equal pay with the lowest scale permanent employees.

This is great news for these much beleaguered workers. However, this agreement has been long in the making, with all but three EU members taking this on years ago. The EU looks set to further extend employment rights for temporary workers - but Britain looks set to oppose this as well.

This continued opposition goes against the Warwick agreement of July 2004. In exchange for continued union support, Tony Blair agreed to reforms of labour legislation including a commitment to support the new EU agency workers directive.

The main problem with the new bill is the 12-week qualifying period. Temporary workers' assignments are short, and many are unlikely to reach this.

Temporary workers need to be unionised. Unions find it difficult to engage with militant agency workers, being usually ill adjusted to working with this sector. The casualisation of workers does create difficulties here, so it is essential to begin to build networks.

Greater progress must come from grassroots self-organisation. Unions without this support and drive may only be able to secure superficial changes.

Tom Ramplin is an agency worker and activist