Equal under the law

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Equal under the law
New EU rules affording agency workers the same rights as full time employees could have a major impact on the food manufacturing sector

After six years of debate, the terms of the Temporary Workers Directive (TWD) were finally approved by the European Parliament last year. But political wrangling over the future of the Working Time Directive (WTD) and the UK's 48-hour working week opt out continues.

Now the TWD has been passed at EU level, the UK has three years to introduce legislation that ensures agency workers get the same pay and conditions as if they had been recruited directly by the employer.

The main provisions of the TWD are:

Basic working and employment conditions for temporary workers to be equal to permanent employees. The government has confirmed that a 12-week qualifying period will apply before workers receive these rights;

Equal access to collective facilities such as canteens and child care services;

Improved access to training and information about permanent positions;

Penalties for non-compliance by agencies and end user employers.

This is big news for the food manufacturing industry. Agency workers comprise 2-4% of the UK labour force, and the food industry relies more than most on temporary and seasonal workers. The Food and Drink Federation noted its disappointment with the 12-week qualifying period. It stated that "because of the seasonal nature of our business we rely heavily on temporary workers" and that the "12-week qualifying period will mean an increased administrative burden for employers"

It is expected that any impact will be greatest in relation to the lower paid end of the agency worker market, especially in seasonal agricultural jobs and manual factory work - both critical links in the food processing chain.

Last May, the government said that occupational benefits such as sick pay and pensions would be excluded by the implementing legislation. Instead employers will be caught by new requirements to provide pension benefits in the Pensions Act 2008. From 2012 they will be required to enrol all workers, including agency workers, automatically into a "qualifying workplace pension", unless they are under the age of 22 or earn less than a minimum earnings threshold of £5,035.

There is still uncertainty over the final form of the WTD after MEPs voted to end the UK's opt-out from the 48-hour working week, insisting it be scrapped within three years. Against a troubled economic backdrop it is expected the UK government will strongly resist this.

Ian Curry is a solicitor in Wragge & Co LLP's Combined Human Resources Solutions team.

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