Agency workers' rights: what are you entitled to?

Keyboard and mouseOn Wednesday members of the Communication Workers Union will stage demonstrations across the UK to highlight a legal loophole it claims companies and hiring agencies are using to exploit temporary agency workers.

The CWU believes that 'Pay Between Assignments' contracts are being used as a tactic to sign away agency workers' rights to equal pay and is calling on agencies and employers like Manpower and BT to stop using the practice.
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CWU general secretary Billy Hayes said that temporary agency workers had little idea what they were signing away and the companies and agencies promoting the contracts were not in keeping with the spirit of the Agency Workers Directive introduced in 2011.

Agency Workers Directive
An agency worker is someone who provides work or services to an organisation, but is contracted via an agency rather than the organisation itself. They are a key resource for businesses with varying work loads that may need casual staff from time to time.

In the past temporary agency workers only had basic employment rights such as a right to the minimum wage and statutory holiday.

But after years of campaigning from trade unions the Agency Workers Directive was introduced in October 2011 to enhance these rights. Now agency workers are entitled to the same equal pay and other benefits as directly hired staff after 12 weeks on the job.

At the time business groups criticised the new rules, suggesting it would make the job market less flexible and warned recruitment and job creation would suffer. But it seems businesses and hiring agencies have just found a way around it.

Pay Between Assignments
'Pay Between Assignments' or the 'Swedish derogation' loophole is a way for companies to escape the 12-week rule set out in the Agency Workers Directive.

It involves temporary agency workers becoming permanent employees of the agency - with the promise of getting paid between jobs for at least four weeks when there is no work available.

On the surface it sounds like a pretty good deal. In addition to getting paid in the gaps between work placements, the contract can give workers the right to claim unfair dismissal (after one year) and redundancy pay (after two years) which aren't usually allowed for agency workers as they are not considered employees.

But signing up to this sort of contract removes the agency worker's right to equal pay after 12 weeks with a company, the pay between work is not much and the payout can be avoided if the agency can find at least one hour of work a week.

Your rights
So what exactly are your rights as an agency worker? Well, from day one you are entitled to:
  • receive at least the National Minimum Wage (currently £6.19 for those aged 21 or over)
  • paid statutory holiday (20 days for full time workers)
  • discrimination rights under the Equality Act 2010
  • be told about internal job vacancies at the company you are on an assignment with
  • protection under health and safety laws
  • equal access to collective facilities and services provided by the company like a car park, crèche or canteen
  • rest breaks and limits on working time

And if you meet the qualifications you may also be entitled to:

After 12 weeks in the same role with the same company agency workers will also have the right to:
  • equal treatment on pay, extra holidays, overtime, night work and bonuses linked to performance as other employees directly hired for the same job
  • not work more than 48 hours a week if comparable workers don't have to and enjoy the same breaks and rest periods
  • improved pregnancy rights like paid time off for antenatal appointments

You can only get these extra rights if there are comparable workers directly recruited doing the same job as you at the same time. If not these rules won't apply.

But agency workers still do not have the right to claim unfair dismissal, minimum notice period, maternity leave or redundancy pay as they are not considered employees of the company.

Useful contacts
If you want to find out more about your rights as an agency worker here are some useful places to start:
- ACAS offers free advice on employment rights and you can contact them on 08457 47 47 47.
- The Citizens Advice Bureau also offers free and confidential advice on a range of issues including workplace rights.
- The Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368 can provide free and confidential information but also allows you to make a complaint if you think your rights have been violated at work.

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