Published: 15/06/2010

Global union federations including the IUF, the ITUC and TUAC have agreed on a common set of principles to guide union action to tackle the employment consequences and impact on unions resulting from the expansion of temporary employment agencies. Released on June 14, the principles address both the exploitation and abuse of workers provided by temporary work agencies as well as the damage to direct (“standard”) employment relationships caused by the misuse of these agencies.

In recent decades, the use of temporary agencies to supply workers has exploded all over the world, spreading also to sectors and occupations that had previously depended on directly employed workers. Not only do temporary agency workers typically receive lower pay and fewer benefits, when the financial crisis rapidly became an employment crisis, temporary agency workers were among its first victims. Many companies simply terminated their contracts with temp agencies so that the workers did not receive the minimum compensation or social benefits that they would have received as direct employees.

The expansion of temporary agency labour, together with other forms of temporary, casual and precarious employment, has been promoted by international organisations like the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD as “labour market flexibility”. It has contributed to a general erosion of workers’ ability to exercise their rights to join trade unions and bargain collectively with their employers, thereby posing a major challenge to the labour movement.  These principles seek to address that challenge.

Although there are varying approaches taken by trade unions in different countries and sectors to dealing with temporary employment agencies, ranging from total bans to partial bans to strict regulation, all Global Unions have reached agreement on a number of key principles. They include:

  • the primary form of employment should be permanent, open-ended and direct;
  • agency workers should be covered under the same collective bargaining agreement as other workers in the user enterprise:
  • temporary agency workers should receive equal treatment in all respects;
  • the use of temporary agencies should not increase the gender gap on wages, social protections, and conditions;
  • temporary work agencies must not be used to eliminate permanent and direct employment relationships; and
  • the use of agency workers should never be used to weaken trade unions or to undermine organising or collective bargaining rights.

The Global Unions’ principles also emphasise the special dangers for migrant workers, who are often engaged by temporary agencies or other intermediaries. Abuses of migrant workers supplied by agencies are all too common. They include the denial of trade union and other human rights, human trafficking, confiscation of passports, deceptive practices with respect to wages and working conditions, and the denial of legal redress in the countries in which they work.

Governments are called on to seriously address the problems of workers supplied by temporary agencies through legislation that defines the employment relationship and ensures that triangular, or indirect, employment does not result in any loss of rights or social protections. Governments are urged to pay special attention to occupational health and safety hazards faced by agency workers and to strengthen labour inspection, so that laws are properly implemented and respected.

Manfred Warda, ICEM General Secretary and chair of the group which developed the principles for the Council of Global Unions, stated that “The Global Unions agreement on Principles on Temporary Work Agencies will lead to better collective action by the international trade union movement. Global Unions are rightly focusing on the rights of contract and agency workers and on the impact of precarious employment, a growing practice that is one of the primary reasons for the widespread violation of rights and growing inequalities among workers in our societies. Workers dispatched by temporary work agencies all suffer from the lack of a direct employment relationship with the very employer that controls their work and determines their working conditions. If we want more, rather than less, social justice, this issue must become a priority not only for trade unions, but for governments and employers throughout the world.”