Published: 26/10/2011

Representatives of unions, governments and the private employment agency lobby came together for a tripartite meeting on “The role of private employment agencies in promoting job creation and decent work in the private services sector” at the ILO in Geneva from October 18-19. The meeting failed to reach agreement on consensus points – a not unsurprising outcome for an exercise which vividly demonstrated the gulf between unions seeking to defend workers against the destructive impact of agency work and an agency lobby seeking to enlist the ILO in their drive for growing market share.

Representatives of national associations of the largest global temp agencies delivered a carefully choreographed program of employer testimony to back their contentions that agencies generate jobs “which otherwise wouldn’t exist” (without explaining how, when governments place workers in jobs, no such claims to “job creation” are made); that “well-regulated” agency work in fact offers more protection and even security than the open-ended direct employment it is increasingly replacing; that agency work does not undermine or displace direct employment, but “complements” it; that the growth of their business means the growth of decent work; that they constitute a “sector” in their own right, despite being present in virtually every sector (and that therefore they are the counterpart for collective bargaining in all sectors in which they operate); that there is nothing problematic in the nature of triangular employment relationships, and that therefore agency work poses no distinct problems for the protection of workers’ rights and interests, once “rogue agencies” are eliminated; that they provide ‘fair’ treatment for their employees (rather than equality of treatment); and that with the ratification of ILO Convention 181 on private employment agencies (which actually allows governments to restrict their operations) decent work is ensured.

The strict time limits and schedule unfortunately gave the Workers Group no time to ask whether replacing all direct employment with agency jobs would result in more decent work and better protection of worker rights…

The Workers Group, formally constituted by representatives of IUF and UNI but open to participation from other global union federations on the grounds that agency work effects everyone in all sectors, included trade unionists from around the world who gave evidence of the corrosive impact of agency work in undermining wages and working conditions and restricting or eliminating the ability of a growing number of workers worldwide to join unions and effectively negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment with their real employers, i.e. the agencies’ clients (“user enterprises”). The Workers Group repeatedly insisted that the real bargaining in agency work takes place between the user enterprises and the agencies, effectively excluding real collective bargaining. To be meaningful, the Workers Group told the employers, governments and the ILO, collective bargaining requires a meaningful negotiating relationship involving the user enterprises and unions representing workers in these enterprises or sectors.

The Chair of the meeting (officially known as a Global Dialogue Forum), an experienced Swiss diplomat, zeroed in on the inherently problematic nature of triangular employment relationships as the defining issue underlying all aspects of agency employment and worker rights. At the last minute the employers rejected discussion of his proposed points of consensus and non-consensus as a basis for conclusions, insisting instead that a limited, select number of points be the sole items on the conclusion menu. The meeting therefore produced no conclusions, but nevertheless proved highly useful in identifying the core issues separating workers and agencies- and the need for serious work by the ILO on these issues (see Unions call for comprehensive action on precarious work by the ILO). Government interventions also testified to the concerns shared by at least some public authorities regarding the growth of agency work.

The agencies have been expanding their global lobby efforts (see Beating back the temporary labour agencies’ global offensive), and they will back at the ILO, just as they will continue to lobby national governments to facilitate the conditions for their expansion. Their latest publication describes their association, Ciett, as “the voice for labour choice”, a mantra that was repeatedly invoked over the two days; workers increasingly choose temporary work, therefore agencies fulfill a distinct consumer demand…

Unions at all levels, for their part, are increasingly turning their attention to rolling back the invasion of agency work through organizing, bargaining and searching for political mechanisms to limit its scope and duration. The Workers Group in this meeting was adamant that agency work must be taken out of the “sectoral” straightjacket at the ILO and placed in a context involving workers and employers in all sectors. As the meeting chair noted, “all the players” must be involved.