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My Lords, Her Majesty's Government welcome the Commission's intention to protect temporary agency workers and to promote agency work in the EU. But, by European standards, we have a large number of agency workers in this country and it is important that the directive works in practice in the UK and helps us to deliver full employment. To ensure this, we are seeking to introduce further flexibilities such as a longer derogation from the equal treatment principle.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he dissent from the press reports which appeared during the weekend and recently indicating that the Government are wholly opposed to the draft directive? Does he agree that temporary workers are among the most vulnerable of all workers and that new Labour is firmly on their side?
My Lords, I am pleased to confirm that we are not wholly opposed to the directive. However, we believe that it must be amended so that it will work in practice in the UK. Above all, we want to ensure that it will not lead to a situation where outsiders—that is, people entering the labour market for the first time—are penalised by insiders by too strong regulations which could lead to a substantial decline in agency work.
My Lords, is it not glaringly obvious that if one makes the employment of temporary workers more burdensome one will reduce the number of temporary work opportunities? Is that what the Government want?
My Lords, as I said, we want to introduce more flexibility so that it is not more burdensome. But, clearly, there are cases in which, for example, people are employed for a year and it is difficult to say that they are not in the same position as permanent employees. They are known in the jargon as "permanent temps" and they should have the same protection as people who are employed on a permanent basis.
My Lords, contrary to what has been said from the Benches opposite, does my noble friend agree that the philosophy behind the issue is that so-called atypical workers—that is, temporary, part-time, contract workers and so forth—in the European labour market become typical workers and that unless we are to have a two-tier labour force, and if we want to encourage such workers to be part of the labour force, we need to ensure that there are pro rata terms, in a broad sense, for them?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that part-time and temporary workers are becoming a large part of the labour force. The Government believe that all workers are entitled to decent and fair minimum standards. In the case of part-time and fixed-term work, directives covering those categories have led to those minimum fair standards being put in place. However, particular circumstances apply to agency workers and in giving them fair minimum standards we must be careful that we do not place on them disproportionate burdens, leading to a reduction in the number of agency workers. They perform a valuable service in the economy.
My Lords, I appreciate what the Minister said, but does he accept that, particularly during periods of relatively high employment in London and the South East, there is significant exploitation of temporary workers, particularly single-parent women? Should not the Labour Government be seeking to protect such groups?
My Lords, I do not think that there is significant exploitation. Our survey clearly shows that agency work suits a large number of people who want agency work rather than permanent employment. Indeed, agency work can help some people to effect a lifestyle choice as it enables them to fit in a job around family commitments. It is therefore by no means clear that people are being exploited. On the contrary, I think that agency work can be a stepping stone for labour market outsiders—the unemployed, starters and other non-participants before beginning agency work—to enter the market.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that although there are many legitimate reasons to employ temporary workers, such as to provide cover during holidays, employers sometimes employ them on a long-term basis, often denying them benefits such as sick pay, holidays and a superannuation scheme? Is there not a good case that such employers are exploiting temporary workers and should be taken to task?
My Lords, as I hope I made clear, we think that there are circumstances in which people can be exploited. We are therefore consulting on our relevant domestic legislation to ensure that people cannot be exploited, particularly in matters such as transfer fees. In this particular case, however, we think that a derogation of more than six weeks would be appropriate. Nevertheless, we agree that there is obviously a point at which people become permanent employees and should receive the same pay. There are situations in which people should be protected, but we think that the six-week time period is too short.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the states that already have stringent national legislation restricting the use of agency labour are experiencing high unemployment and have—in the case of France, and soon in that of Germany—economies that are in serious trouble? Will he confirm that he does not want to take us down that route?
My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that we think that agency workers perform an important function, and that we are therefore concerned that this legislation should be made more flexible. Other European countries such as Ireland and Germany are sympathetic to our position and see the same problems with the directive.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for reminding me of a fact to which I had foolishly not referred earlier in the debate.