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Unions fight back against explosion of agency labour

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1 October, 2012Agency work is expanding massively throughout the world, replacing permanent, direct employment and undermining international labour standards.

IndustriALL Global Union’s new report The Triangular Trap: Unions take action against agency work’ exposes the global forces behind the spread of agency work and shows how unions are fighting back.

Across all industries, in all parts of the globe, IndustriALL is witnessing a radical transformation of the way that workers are employed. Employment via agencies, labour brokers, dispatchers and contractors is being used to wholesale replace permanent, direct employment.

Explosion of agency work

According to global agency industry body Ciett, the agency industry’s global annual sales revenue increased from €83 billion in 1996 to €203 billion in 2009 and the number of agency workers has more than doubled over the same period.

The use of agency workers now goes way beyond any legitimate need to fill genuinely temporary vacancies. It is now common to find workers employed for years as temporary agency workers on continuously renewed contracts. Their status is temporary, so they are denied the benefits and job security of permanent jobs, but the work they are performing is not.

Once confined to peripheral activities, agency work is increasingly present in core production areas, and in some cases entire workforces have been replaced by agency workers.

We are seeing workers transferred overnight from direct employment to agency employment, without their knowledge or consent. The workers continue in the same jobs, doing the same work but their wages are now lower, their benefits are cut and they are no longer able to bargain collectively with their employer.

Consequences for collective bargaining

The impact of increasing indirect employment on collective bargaining is devastating. Agency workers are prevented from bargaining with the enterprise that they work for, since it is not legally their employer, and they are not able to effectively bargain with the agency itself since it is the enterprise that controls their pay and conditions. Workers are left out in the cold, while the real bargaining takes place between the agency and the user enterprise which together determine the terms of the contract between them.

As permanent work is replaced by agency work, collective strength is gradually lost and wages and conditions for the remaining direct employees are driven down. It is not uncommon for more than one agency to be present in a workplace, further dividing the workforce and reducing still further the possibility of collective action.

Industry lobbying to increase use of agency labour

The Triangular Trap’ exposes how agencies and Ciett gloss over the negative consequences of agency work in their lobbying efforts to remove legal restrictions on agency work. It destroys the myths perpetrated by the agencies that they create jobs and promote decent work.

Global campaign

IndustriALL is launching ‘The Triangular Trap’ as part of its global campaign to stop precarious work. On October 7, the World Day for Decent Work, IndustriALL affiliates mobilized their members to take action against the spread of agency work and other forms of precarious employment.

The Triangular Trap gives numerous examples of how unions around the world are fighting back against agency work. IndustriALL affiliates are striking collective agreements that put strict limits on the use of agency labour, even banning it from entire industries. They were also mobilizing, taking to the streets to demand that governments take action against the expansion of indirect employment and the destruction of worker rights that it brings.

Demands on governments

Yet more and more countries are introducing legislation to enable the expansion of indirect employment via agencies, contractors and labour brokers. IndustriALL affiliates are fighting these initiatives wherever they appear. The latest offender is Mexico which is forcing through legislation to allow unlimited subcontracting of employment with no worker protections.

IndustriALL is demanding that all governments respect their obligations to protect workers’ rights and stop this massive and unprecedented expansion of agency work.

IndustriALL is calling on governments to:

  • set limits on the scope and duration of agency work
  • guarantee agency workers access to permanent, direct employment
  • require companies to bargain on the use of agency work
  • ensure full equality of treatment between agency and directly employed workers and
  • assure agency workers’ effective rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

There must be strong controls to prevent agency work being used as a replacement for permanent work.

With ‘The Triangular Trap’ IndustriALL is sending a message to business and governments worldwide that we will not sit quietly while workers’ rights and the labour standards and protections that have been achieved through union struggle are undermined by agency work. IndustriALL and its affiliates will continue to campaign against agency work and all other employment models that give maximum flexibility to companies at the expense of workers.