Up to 250,000 jobs could be hit if the British government agrees to give new rights to agency workers, the country’s biggest business group warned today.
The CBI said it was “very concerned” that a draft European Union directive will be discussed later this week by European employment ministers.
A survey of 500 firms for the group showed up to 250,000 jobs would be jeopardised if agency workers were given the same employment rights as permanent staff.
Deputy director-general John Cridland warned firms would take on fewer agency staff and probably ask their employees to work overtime instead.
“Use of temporary agency staff is vital for employers seeking to manage surges in demand. At the same time, these jobs offer quality work to people who actively choose a form of employment that allows them to balance responsibilities or pursue other interests.
“Many are women returning to employment after having a family or young people for whom this is a first essential step into further employment.
“But this important section of the workforce has an uncertain future if the government caves into pressure for a new EU law. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be put at risk unless Gordon Brown rejects it outright, or at least insists on a qualifying period of a year before full employment rights apply to a temporary post.
“As proposed, the directive would seriously undermine the flexibility that temps offer to firms, hurting the economy and making them far more likely to rely on overtime flexibility from existing workers instead.”
Around 20% of temporary jobs could be affected by any change to the employment status of agency workers, said the CBI.
Recruitment firm Pertemps, which helped with the research, said the UK had the edge over its European competitors because of its flexible labour market.
Chairman Tim Watts said: “People take up temporary work for a variety of reasons, sometimes to gain experience with a view to securing a permanent role or to build work around their other commitments, like caring for a family or elderly relative.
“We should not confuse people who choose to work flexibly with people who are ’vulnerable’. From my experience, making the conditions for temporary agency workers the same as for permanent staff would actually make them less attractive in the job market and that would risk the livelihoods on which they depend.”
Around two-thirds of the firms surveyed said the directive would damage flexibility and significantly increase costs.
Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, said: “The epidemic of temporary and agency employment threatens both our economic and social fabric.
“It’s creating a two-tier workforce and a two-tier society and its effects are being felt in every industry, every workplace and every region of the country.
“Unscrupulous employers are exploiting the scandalous lack of protection given to temporary and agency workers, which creates difficulties for good employers who have to compete.
“It’s estimated that more than one million people are now employed on temporary and agency contracts, which means they have no job protection, are not entitled to sick pay or paid holidays and are subject to lower rates of pay.
“As well as creating conditions of poverty pay and desperate insecurity, these employment practices jeopardise the hard-won pay and conditions of directly-employed colleagues doing the same work.”