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Freelancer: A business or a vulnerable temp?
by Susie Hughes at 08:30 19/10/05 (Viewpoint)
Two UK representative bodies are fighting to convince the Government that agency workers are two completely different sets of people.
The TUC, representing the unions, has handed Ministers a dossier detailing the exploitation and abuse suffered by agency workers. While the Recruitement & Employment Confederation (REC), representing agencies, has simultaneously showed the Government research which claims agency workers enjoy the flexibility and freedom that role brings.

Both parties issued calls to the Government to take note and act - within 24 hours of each other.

The catalyst
The catalyst for this battle is the Temporary Agency Workers Directive - an often-shelved but never completely killed-off piece of EU legislation, which seeks to protect what many countries perceive to be an exploited work force - the temporary or agency worker.

In effect it would give certain employment rights to temporary workers after a short period of time - perhaps six weeks.

In many countries, temporary or agency workers are low paid and low skilled who are seen to be in need of protection having been stripped of their employment in order to allow employers to avoid their obligations under employment rights measures.

The UK trade union movement has been a long-term supporter of this Directive. Employers' organisations, such as the CBI, have opposed it.

UK freelancers
The problem arises in the UK as it has a much more mature agency and freelancer system than most of the rest of Europe, with many freelancers operating through agencies in highly paid and highly skilled positions.

It has never been certain whether this protective legislation would also sweep up the UK freelancer.

The concern is that freelancers who do not want this protection would have it forced upon them making it far less attractive to clients to use a worker on a short term contract.

Smashing the stereotype
On Thursday last week, REC published a set of findings which portrayed the temporary worker as someone who chose temping for positive reasons such as increased flexibility, better pay or to gain valuable work experience. The research also claimed there are almost four times more agency workers who are satisfied overall with temporary work than there are workers who are dissatisfied.

REC claimed that this research smashed the traditional temp stereotype of someone who is low paid and low skilled. (See Temporary workers are happy workers - Shout99, October 18 2005)

Strengthening the sterotype
A day later, on Friday October 14, the TUC issued a counter-blast, urging the Government to listen to tales of exploitation from agency temps.

A TUC dossier, Life on the Edge, delivered to Ministers that morning contained first hand reports from temps of a catalogue of abuses including illegal low pay, unlawful deductions from wages and the withholding of holiday pay.

The report, published to coincide with a major TUC conference on the problems facing many of the UK's 600,000 temporary agency workers, challenged the view that temps do not need or want improved employment rights.

The TUC said that the Government should listen to these genuine reports of mistreatment in UK workplaces and act on its commitment to try to get agreed laws for equal pay and better protections for temps that are currently stuck at a European level.

TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, said: "Temping is vital to today's modern economy but with no proper protection too many agency temps are suffering working practices from the dark ages. Too many are treated like a throwaway second-class worker and have to take it or leave. If they complain they lose their assignment and any chance of more work with the agency.

"Decent, Europe wide rights for agency workers would make temping the quality step into, or stop gap between, full time work that it should be."

REC immediately countered the TUC claims by saying: "This so-called dossier is based on a few isolated case studies and it is an aberration for the TUC to use this as a means of calling for the type of regulation that could have a substantial impact on the UK labour market."

Shout99 Viewpoint
So within 24 hours, Government Ministers had received two documents from two different organisations claiming that one set of people were two diametrically opposed groups with completely different outlooks, aspirations and experiences.

One: happy and content with the flexibility temporary working brings; the other: down-trodden, expolited and in need of protection.

The problem is that clearly they are two diferent groups - in essence if not in law.

A temporary worker on the Continent who has been forced into an agency contract from the security of her employment as a cleaner in order to save her employer a few Euros on sick pay is very different from a highly experienced, well-paid technical consultant who brings flexibility and valued resources to a specific project in the City of London.

However, they both work on short term contracts, often through an agency. One needs and deserves protection; the other fears and rejects it.

Ironically, if the Temporary Agency Workers Directive were ever to be re-introduced in whatever form, the group who could then be in need of protection would be the UK freelancer who would become a much less attractive proposition to their clients who don't want to be burdened with employment rights.

Challenge
Trying to categorise a temporary worker with a 'one-hat-fits-all' definition isn't the answer.

Perhaps the challenge for the lobbying groups and the European Governments is to find a solution which addresses the problem for the group of people it is trying to help; rather than a solution which brings a new problem of its own making to a different group of people.

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Susie Hughes Shout99.com 2005

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