LRD Booklets October 2002

Temporary workers - a guide to the new law

Introduction

More than one and a half million people are currently working in temporary, or fixed-term, jobs on contracts that only last for a fixed period of time or are intended only to cover a specific project of work. Although many fixed-term workers are employed in low skilled work, the single largest occupational group of temporary workers works in professional occupations, often in health or education. These sectors have not only drastically increased their use of fixed-term contracts in recent years as a way of dealing with staff shortages, but have consistently treated such workers less favourably.

Fixed-term contract workers in all sectors have, until now, often lost out. A TUC survey in 2001 found that one in four workplaces did not pay sick pay to temporary workers, while one in eight paid them no holiday pay.

But these workers will now have protection as a result of a new law, effective from 1 October 2002. The Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 make it unlawful for employers to offer employment terms and conditions that discriminate against fixed-term contract employees.

Union reaction

Unions have generally welcomed the new law as it will make it unlawful for employers to discriminate blatantly against fixed-term contract employees. The TUC, in a detailed response to the government's consultation on the new law, makes it clear that while generally supporting the regulations, it still has a "number of outstanding and priority concerns". These are highlighted in the relevant chapters of the booklet.

The T&G general union, the main union representing agency workers, describes the new law as "long overdue". National secretary Len McCluskey said: "Entitlement to basic benefits like sick pay and holiday pay should not depend on whether you are on a temporary or permanent contract".

Entertainment union Equity, most of whose members are employed on fixed-term or other forms of temporary contract, also "broadly welcomes" the new law. However, it points out that the law is weak in some areas and that the opportunity has been missed to offer a greater degree of employment protection to fixed-term contract workers.

Within the education sector there has been a massive growth in fixed-term contracts, with all of the unions campaigning for better rights at work. The university teachers' union AUT says that the new law "presents us with the opportunity and challenge to reverse years of discriminatory practice". The EIS, representing schoolteachers in Scotland, has consistently opposed the increasing casualisation of the teaching profession and campaigns to restrict the use of temporary contracts.

UK law

The government had to introduce the new regulations to comply with a European Union (EU) directive that aims to give fixed-term workers a better deal at work. However, as this booklet demonstrates, the rights of fixed-term workers in the UK could have been strengthened even further, had the government been prepared to interpret the EU directive differently. Instead it chose to introduce only the minimum provisions of the directive into UK law, and as a result fixed-term workers have fewer rights than in other comparable EU economies. Indeed there are suggestions that the UK law fails to provide even the minimum protection laid down in the directive and that the government could be subject to a legal challenge. This is because the law applies only to "employees", excluding many "workers".

This booklet explains the UK regulations in detail and compares them with the EU directive. It also provides some background information about temporary workers: who they are; where they work and what rights they had already enjoyed until 1 October 2002. Action checklists are provided for union reps to give guidance on the main areas for negotiation.

Agency workers

The new regulations only cover fixed-term workers directly employed by the organisation they are working for. They do not cover agency staff supplied to work as temps in various workplaces. The European Commission has published a separate directive on the rights of agency staff, but as yet it has not been agreed and there is no date for when its provisions will have to be introduced into UK law.

The number of agency workers in the UK has increased in the last year, and one effect of the new regulations could be a further increase as employers move away from directly employed labour to avoid complying with the new law. Representatives need to be aware of the risks this poses to workers' existing terms and conditions unless organised workplaces take steps to negotiate agreements that protect existing fixed-term contract staff.