Will the Agency Workers Regulations be Overturned?

The 2010 Agency Workers Regulations are due to be enforced in October 2011, in keeping with the EU’s deadline of 5 December 2011 for placing national laws complying with its provisions. The Conservatives, however, would apparently like to be rid of them.

The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 gives agency workers rights that are similar to those of employees, so long as they complete 12 continuous calendar weeks in the same role. It also marks out penalties for agencies or hirers who fail to give agency workers their rights. These ideas have arisen from the European Union and moved into UK law to concur with the EU’s insistence that member states must develop laws that comply with their guidelines about the treatment of agency workers.

But the Conservatives object to the speed with which the new regulations were passed through both houses of parliament. They say that the legislation was rushed through after just eight weeks of consultation with businesses, and believe that it will prove to be self-defeating by discouraging organisations from hiring agency workers. Since agencies are a pivotal method for gaining work for the unemployed, this is a particular worry given the economic climate. Now that the Conservatives are in government, this would suggest that they plan to repeal the Agency Workers Regulation, or at least sections of it.

The legislation at present will create a huge burden on employers in the UK, particularly for small businesses, which the Conservatives have also outlined as an issue.

When the regulations were originally in production, consultations with “social partners” were suggested by the EU, which in the case of the UK are the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). So the only realistic option available to the Conservatives is to reopen consultation with the CBI and TUC. But, given the party’s history with the TUC, there is little hope that any agreement would be reached, especially considering that the trade unions are greatly in favour of the new regulations and would see attempts by Conservatives to change them as a way of protecting immoral employers at agency workers’ expense.

The CBI, however, may be more responsive to the suggestion of making amendments to the regulations in order to lighten the burden resting on businesses.

Regardless, the Conservatives cannot purely ignore the EU’s directive without the threat of marginalisation in Europe, something the current economy couldn’t afford the potential reprisals of. The Conservative shadow business minister, Jonathan Djanogly, hinted at partial withdrawal from the EU when he said “we need to cut out the gold plating of European directives and repatriate employment law from Brussels to the UK”.

When withdrawal appears to be such an extreme measure, the only reasonable tactic of the Conservative Party seems to be to discussion with the social partners. And if this is to be done, they should be aware that there is a considerable time restraint, especially if they  aim to give agencies and hirers time to adapt their current practices.

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