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The government needs to get serious about equal pay for agency workers

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This week, the government’s long-awaited response to the Taylor review on modern working practices finally landed on our desktops.

Overall government’s plans amount to a missed opportunity.  Yes, those trapped in insecure work will have better rights to information about pay and conditions and enforcement of basic rights may improve.  But as a package, the measures will do little to change in the balance of power for the modern workplace.

But one announcement did grab my attention.  That’s the decision to consult on the loophole known as the Swedish derogation. For years, unions have called for an end to this ‘undercutters' charter’ which allows employers to get away with paying agency workers far less than permanent staff doing the exact same work. 

So serious were the TUC’s concerns, that in 2013 we formally complained to the EU Commission that UK’s Agency Worker Regulations (AWR) fell well short of the required EU standards. This week’s announcement is the first acknowledgement that the UK government may just have failed in its duty take steps to prevent the abuse of agency workers’ rights.

So of course, the TUC will respond to the consultation, highlighting of the ‘pay penalty’ suffered by agency workers in workplaces across the UK.  We will put paid to the myth that agency workers choose to ‘opt out’ of equal pay. Agency workers are forced to sign such contracts as the price of getting any paid work.

To our mind there can only one answer to the consultation – the loophole must be closed. Agency workers have been treated as second class citizens for long enough. It’s time they received the going rate for the job.

The government is also looking at improving enforcement of equal treatment rights by tasking the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI) with responsibility for the AWR.  Extending EASI’s remit is of course welcome – but long overdue.  Thanks to calls from trade unions, the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (now known as the Gangmaster Labour Abuse Authority) decided to enforce equal pay rights for agency workers in agriculture and fresh food industries as far back as 2012.  It’s about time agency workers working in warehouses, call centres, social care, and education benefitted from similar protections.

Finally, the government is to consult on whether agency workers – as well as zero hours workers - should have a right to request a more stable contract with their agency rather than with the hirer.  Far from going beyond Matthew Taylor’s recommendations, this proposal totally misses the point. Agency workers need a stepping stone into permanent work - not to become trapped in insecure work with an agency on low paid and limited career prospects.

Agency workers in Britain need a better deal – and ministers must up their game to deliver it.

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