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Flexi-job apprenticeships must not lead to exploitation

Published date
The government has announced a consultation on a new flexi-job apprenticeship scheme involving apprentices experiencing their employment and training with a number of different employers.

The TUC is concerned about the higher risks of exploitation of apprentices on such schemes unless there are clear safeguards in place to secure quality training and decent pay and conditions. Many young people are already deterred from pursuing an apprenticeship by low pay and poor treatment and a flexi-job scheme will only exacerbate these concerns. 

Building on Apprenticeship Training Agencies (ATAs) 

The current proposal for flexi- or portable apprenticeships was first mooted in the Spending Review last year, with a focus on developing the existing role of Apprenticeship Training Agencies. ATAs were a previous government initiative to support flexible apprenticeships, which drew on an Australian model where apprentices are employed by a recruitment agency and hired out to host businesses. In the past we have expressed concerns about ATAs as regards the potential for exploitation and an increase in short-term and poor-quality apprenticeships.  

A TUC policy brief explains how apprentices lose their direct employment link with an employer through ATAs. This effectively turns them into agency workers, with implications for job security, the quality of training, supervision, health and safety and employment prospects. There is also an impact on the ability of unions to organise and bargain effectively.  

Quality sector schemes supported by employers and unions 

However, in some instances unions have backed reputable ATAs where it has been clearly demonstrated that they support high-quality long-term apprenticeships in circumstances where it is very difficult for the employer in question to be the direct employer. One example of this is the ATA developed by the sector body, Cogent Skills, which is supported by the employer and union representatives on its board. The government’s consultation document refers directly to this ATA as an example of best practice.  

This scheme has been in existence for some time and has supported over 2,000 apprentices across the science industries, including helping many employers progress to employing their apprentices directly. Over 90% of the apprentices supported so far secured a permanent job following their placement and this has been boosted by the extensive support they have received from Cogent Skills, employers and unions. 

The flexi-job apprenticeship scheme model 

In the Budget the Chancellor announced that the government would introduce a £7m fund from July to provide initial set-up costs for a new approach on portable apprenticeships. The consultation document says that the aim of the new flexi-job apprenticeship scheme is to enable employers to recruit apprentices even if they can’t employ them for the full duration of an apprenticeship and to allow people to pause and resume their apprenticeship between stays with different employers. 

Organisations running these schemes will be the direct employers of the apprentices – they will pay their wages, negotiate their placements with different employers, and try and manage the complexities of their training and assessment. This flexi-job model is very different to the ATA scheme run by Cogent Skills which acts on behalf of one employer, where the apprentice works and trains, usually moving into sustainable well-paid employment on completion. The new flexi-job scheme will be tested out during 2021-22 with a particular focus on the creative industries and construction sector. 

Promoting precarious employment? 

The TUC believes that the proposed flexi-job model is very likely to promote even more precarious job patterns in sectors like the creative industries and construction.  What the government should be doing is to tackle the root causes of insecure employment directly and incentivising employers to recruit apprentices for the long-term rather than promoting even more short-termism. 

There is also a danger that some employers in these sectors who currently recruit apprentices directly will see this as an opportunity to adopt the flexi-job model to the detriment of their existing apprenticeship programme. Organisations running the new flexi-apprenticeship scheme are likely to face major cost pressures and this risks many apprentices being recruited on the lowest wage possible. 

Sector sign-off 

To avoid these risks, the TUC is calling for a requirement that the design and regulation of any new scheme must be agreed by employers and trade unions in the relevant sector beforehand and closely monitored on a regular basis. Priorities will be to safeguard high quality training, decent pay and conditions and health and safety standards, and a proactive approach on equality and diversity. This sector sign-off would also deliver robust accountability and regulation to ensure that any agencies involved are pursuing the best interests of apprentices and have the clear support of employers and unions in each sector. 

Future reforms? 

The government has committed to review the apprenticeship levy and the TUC will repeating its calls for key reforms, including allowing levy funding to be also used for innovative pre-apprenticeship programmes and initiatives to widen access to high quality apprenticeships for under-represented groups. 

But this review should take a wider perspective and include new policy actions to address the impact of the pandemic and its economic fallout on apprenticeship numbers. Urgent reforms are also required to strengthen enforcement of employment and training rights of apprentices, boost wage levels, improve equality of access, and guarantee a minimum progression to a level 3 apprenticeship for all young people. 

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