Five questions answered on the TUC’s line on agency workers

A "flawed" directive.

The TUC, a trade union umbrella body, said today that the UK is failing to implement European rules designed to give equal pay to agency workers. We answer five questions on the trade body’s claim.

Why does the TUC think agency staff are being treated unfairly?

The trade body is complaining to the European Commission that agency staff are still being underpaid despite the government's implementation of the Temporary Agency Workers Directive, which came into effect two years ago. It called the implementation of this directive “flawed”.

What else did the TUC say?

It argued that agency staff working at a company for 12 weeks or more are entitled to be paid the same as permanent staff.

It said an exemption meant that if a worker was directly employed by an agency the company did not have to pay that worker the same rate of pay as a staffer - although they do get paid for at least four weeks between assignments.

It added that there has been a big rise in these types of contracts, with more than one in six agency workers now on them.

What does the TUC want exactly?

The TUC says it wants the government to ban these contracts and has asked the European Commission to investigate the problem.

General secretary Frances O'Grady speaking to the BBC said: "The recent agency worker regulations have improved working conditions for many agency workers without causing job losses.

"However, the regulations are being undermined by a growing number of employers who are putting staff on contracts that deny them equal pay.

"Most people would be appalled if the person working next to them was paid more for doing the same job, and yet agency workers on these contracts can still be treated unfairly," he added.

What has the government said?

"We worked closely with both employers and employee organisations to successfully implement the Agency Workers Regulations," the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told the BBC.

"We will of course consider carefully any information the TUC presents to the European Commission."

What do recruitment experts think about the matter?

Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, told the BBC the issue was not a loophole but a "legitimate part of the legislation".

"Agency workers have benefited since these rules came in," he said. "There are lots of things our members were unhappy with in these regulations, there was clearly a compromise made.

"The key thing is to get people into work, to make sure you're creating jobs, if you start unpicking regulations because you decide you don't like them, then you risk creating uncertainty, undermining employers confidence and end up with fewer people in work."

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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