Think-tank Report Says UK Agency Workers Are Exploited

Christmas 2016 will see an estimated 340,000 UK workers employed for temporary work via agency contracts which provide only minimal legal protection against unfair treatment in the workplace.

This revelation is part of the research from a new think-tank report conducted by the UK Resolution Foundation that reveals details of its eighteen-month investigation into how British agency workers are treated. Findings of the report show that many agency-contracted workers are shockingly underpaid compared to their non-agency colleagues despite performing the same duties.

The report entitled Secret Agents: agency workers in the new world of work intends to create awareness of the discriminatory nature of non-agency work in a manner similar to how other recent reports have brought attention to issues that negatively affect workers who are employed via zero-hours contracts. There is considerable overlap between the two work forms, as14% of agency workers are also employed via zero-hour contractual agreements.

The Resolution Foundation’s senior policy analyst, Lindsay Judge, has noted how addressing agency issues is often neglected: “While zero-hours contracts are often in the news, agency workers are the ‘forgotten face’ of the modern workforce, despite being just as prevalent across the labour market.”

Agency workers now account for a very significant volume of the UK workforce. In London nearly 20% of the city’s workforce are on non-agency contracts, and many of these workers lack the employment rights non-agency staff are accustomed to, such as sick payments and parental leave.

The report also reveals that workers employed via agencies are from a much broader range of age groups than the 18-30 bracket that agencies are often believed to employ.

Lindsay Judge feels “it is important that the discussion of the non-traditional parts of work in modern Britain consider the relatively lower pay that agency workers receive compared to identical employees in similar jobs.”

This view is supported by Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of TUC, who states that “agency workers are often paid less than their permanent colleagues, even when they do exactly the same job […] We need the government to toughen the law to create a level playing field for agency workers.”

The report also highlights how agency contracts are often used for long-term rather than short employment, contrary to past reports of how such contracts are usually temporary and short-term.

The Resolution Foundation has spoken ahead of the report’s publication, claiming the organization is not biased towards the nature of agency work, and fully recognises how there is often a need for such contracts as workers often search for flexible employment to support their lifestyle arrangements.

However, the report does draw attention to the fact that a considerable number of workers on agency contracts are not choosing to work this way, and that 60% of workers would rather be fully employed if given the choice.

In 2011 approximately 200,000 UK workers were on agency contracts that existed across a range of industries, from office temps to hospital nurses. This figure has more than quadrupled to around 865,000 since then. The Resolution Foundation’s report estimates this number will increase to more than a million by 2020.

The largest sector for agency employment is the health and social care sector, which has a staggering 18% of the UK’s agency staff.

The report shows that despite more men being employed via agency work (54%), women account for 85% of the workers employed during the recorded increase that has occurred in the UK over the past five years,

An imbalance in the number of ethnic workers on agency contracts is also evident in the report’s findings, as 20% of agency workers are non-white despite accounting for only 2.7% of the workforce.

There has been a surge in agency related case coming to tribunal in recent months, including high profile grievances involving household names like Deliveroo, Uber and Sports Direct. These cases all involved grievances relating to the unfair treatment of staff.

One area of concern regarding agency contracts is the legal loophole often referred to as the ‘Swedish derogation’. This allows employers to pay temp workers less than their fully-employed peers as long as the agency is paying them continuously for a period of at least four weeks during times when the business is unable to find work for those workers.