par Sonia McKay
Employment agencies have been playing an increasingly dominant role in migration, either by assisting workers to make their migration journey – through advertising the availability of work abroad – or by giving access to employment once the migrant has arrived in the new country. But the terms on which this work is offered are of concern. Certainly in the UK there is growing evidence of agencies exploiting migrant workers, either through charging excessive amounts for transport, accommodation or simply for finding the migrant the job; or through paying low wages while recovering larger sums from the employer end user. Obviously there are also examples of good practice, and many migrants speak of the advantages of securing initial work through an intermediary. But overall assessments are that agency work is paid less well, is more likely to be exploitative in terms of the hours and overall conditions that apply and also places migrant workers at greater risk to their health and safety.
There are no precise figures on the number of workers who source their work through agencies. The UK government estimate is that between 200,000 and 500,000 workers are employed indirectly through agencies; a report by the European Foundation has estimated it as at least 600,000 strong. The main employer body representing the sector – the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) – puts the figure considerably higher, estimating it as around 1.2 million jobs a year (www.rec.uk.com/about-recruitment). And even this figure could be an under-estimate, as many of the smaller agencies, particularly those involved in sourcing work for migrants, are not registered with REC, which tends to represent the larger agencies. Additional more recent data (KPMG ’Report on jobs’, 2007) suggests that the numbers have risen even further.
End use employers give a number of reasons why they use agency staff. According to the Workplace employment relations’ survey, 1999 the principal reason (given by 59 per cent of responding employers) was to provide short-term cover. However, while this is obviously a key role for employment agencies, there is growing evidence of employer long-term use of agency staff. Using agency workers means avoiding having to recruit directly, it takes away many human resource management problems and it is additionally a workforce that can be dispensed with at any time. Troublesome workers can be easily removed and replaced without any rights to complain. In research on the poultry industry we found agency workers employed for months and in some cases years, without access to direct employment. And, particularly in cases where the work is low-paid, the likelihood is that recently arrived migrants will perform it. The poultry industry research found that they made up around 90 per cent of the agency workforce, in a context where agency workers constituted around a quarter of the entire workforce.
In the UK employment agencies are regulated under the Employment Agencies Act of 1973, amended in 2003. The Act provides a registration scheme and states that agencies may not charge workers for finding them a job. But in the research we have undertaken on migrant workers we have found many examples of workers being ‘charged’ for job finding. Often these ‘charges’ are hidden as inflated fees for the cost of travel to the country or in the costs of accommodation on arrival, but sometimes they are more direct charges, levied on the worker prior to their migration. These ‘charges’ can vary from a few hundred euros, to in some cases, many thousands. We have cases of workers being charged 20,000 or more euros by the agency that transported them. Such charges can take years to pay back, placing the worker in long-term debt to the agencies. However, even where there are no exorbitant charges, agency work generally means poorer work on worse conditions. In a study carried out by the Working Lives Research Institute, for the UK government Health and Safety Executive, we found that overwhelmingly agency workers were paid less than directly employed workers and were more likely to work the least acceptable work patterns. They were predominantly on night shifts and on other unsocial hours’ patterns. At present employment through the agency means that there is no clearly identifiable party with whom the trade union can negotiate over agency workers’ use, terms and conditions. From the agency perspective they often claim that they would like to offer better terms to the workers they source but that employers simply do not pay them enough to cover their margins and to pay equal rates. As a result it is the agency workers who lose out and who continue to represent an exploited group of workers.
At EU level progress on securing a directive on agency workers remains stalled. At the the beginning of December, it seemed that the UK position of blocking the proposed directive, might move into a minority but at the last minute the situation changed again and the directive failed to attract the votes needed to be adopted. The UK trade unions position is that when workers are performing the same work they should be paid the same, regardless of whether they are working directly for the employer or through an agency. But essentially the trade unions would want workers to be directly employed so that they could represent them. In contrast UK employers have reacted with alarm to the proposed directive, stating that thousands of jobs will be at risk.
Dr Sonia McKay Principal Research Fellow
Working Lives Research Institute – London Metropolitan University