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

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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.