Monday, May 19, 2008

Agency workers leap into the Abyss

On the train this morning to the UNISON London International Committee, I read a feature in “Inside Housing” (I can’t find an to the article on the site) 9 May 2008 by a Recruitment consultant on the attractions of working as a “professional social housing contractor” e.g. agency temp.

The title of the article was “Leap of faith”. This really rattled my cage.

While the consultant did point out that “temping” could be risky if you cannot find any suitable assignments, it completely failed to point out all the other, arguable more serious problems with casual employment compared to permanent work.

For example there was no mention at all of the risk if you became sick or had an accident. Most agencies only pay statutory sick pay (SSP). This will pay you the grand sum of £74.40 per week if you have paid sufficient national insurance contributions (and you get nothing for the first 3 days of each claim). While most permanent jobs in social housing will pay at least 3-6 months full pay if you are sick.

There was also no mention that you will only get statutory holiday leave (20 days per year) and even now you will not get paid full leave for all bank holidays. Many organisations will give much longer annual leave especially with long service.

Company pensions, life assurance and PHI/disability protection was also ignored. In organisations that offer a company pension, up to 10-15% of your salary could be additionally paid into a pension for you.

Also, one of the hardest things for me to deal with as a trade union steward, is with members who become disabled or the families of those who have died in service who were not also members of a company pension scheme. Think about how awful this is.

There are huge number of other problems with "casualisation", not least the almost complete and utter lack of any employment protection for agency workers. Thankfully, the government is now making noises about extending “fairness” to agency workers (better late than never but I would not hold your breath). Agency workers are also rarely if ever recruited via equality proofed mechanisms.

I simply don’t believe that for the vast of agency workers they are “better off” than working for a permanent employer who pays company benefits. I also think that organisations who employ agency staff rather than actively recruit permanent staff also suffer, not least because they have to pay VAT on those staff and also the agency costs and profits.

Finally, I recognise that there is a role for agency workers to cover short term sickness or special one off tasks, however, for the vast majority of the social housing workforce to be a contractor rather than a permanent employee, it is not so much a “Leap of faith” as for many a “Leap into the Abyss”.

Picture of East London “Professional Docker contractors” queuing for the chance to work.

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