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THE RISE OF THE TEMPORARY AGENCY WORKER shows no sign of tapering off as the labour market in most EU Member States remains in the doldrums, however the experiences of different countries vary as much as their economic prospects. A recent survey by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) found that the percentage of workers in temporary employment has increased since the onset of the crisis in 2008 in 19 of the 27 nations. In Spain and Poland, where previously there was a high proportion of temps, their prevalence has declined, though for opposite reasons. The Polish boom saw companies absorbing temporary workers by giving them permanent positions while the huge drop in employment in Spain fell disproportionately on temps who were easier to lay off than their permanent colleagues.
Three countries where temporary employment has recently increased have all experienced problems in its regulation. In Germany trade unions have won the right to veto any attempt by an employer to recruit workers from an agency if there is no time limit on their contract. The IG Metall and Ver.di unions want the courts to go further and clarify just how long a job can last before it ceases to count as ‘temporary’. The Netherlands faces ‘revolving door’ practices whereby a temporary employee is terminated just before reaching three years in post after which companies are legally bound to offer a permanent contract. The worker is then laid off for at least three months, so that their consecutive record of employment is broken, and then re-hired as a temp. Following the conclusion of a ‘social agreement’ between the social partners (see issue 62) the Minister of Social Affairs intends to close these loopholes by reducing the maximum length of temporary contracts from three to two years, increasing the ‘break’ period to six months and abolishing zero-hours contracts. The latter are becomimg an increasing bone of contention in the U.K. but here employers are making growing use of another way of circumventing the 2008 EU Temporary Agency Workers Directive. The so-called ‘Swedish derogation’ allows agencies not to pay those they directly employ the same rate as permanent staff doing the same job as long as they continue paying for at least four weeks when staff are between assignments. In Sweden this results merely in a 90% salary when looking for work but in Britain some agencies pay temps up to £135 a week less than colleagues in the same workplace and halve even this rate after they finish. According to the TUC a report for employment agencies recently estimated that one in six of their workers are on these contracts. The union federation has made an official complaint to the European Commission that the British government has not fully implemented the EU directive. General secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The recent agency worker regulations have improved working conditions for many agency workers without causing job losses. However, the regulations are being undermined by a growing number of employers who are putting staff on contracts that deny them equal pay’.