Socialist Worker

Agency work: flexibility or exploitation?

Socialist Worker looks at how the increasing use of employment agencies is undermining workers’ rights

Issue No. 2177

Manpower workers at a scab mail centre in Dartford during the Royal Mail strike (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Manpower workers at a scab mail centre in Dartford during the Royal Mail strike (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

Royal Mail’s use of agency workers to try to break the post workers’ strike has highlighted the role of employment agencies.

Agency workers have also been used to try to break the strike of refuse workers in Leeds.

But a government inspector has warned three employment agencies that they were in danger of breaking the law by recruiting workers to do the work of striking bin workers.

These are not isolated incidents. More companies, councils and the government are likely to look to use agency workers in the future to help undermine workers’ resistance to their plans.

A document produced by the law firm Blake Lathorn, which advises employment agencies, says, “Any UK government seems likely to try to reduce the cost of the public sector.

“This will include consideration of pay freezes, pay cuts, hiring freezes for perms [permanent staff], changes to collective terms and conditions and, perhaps above all, changes to unaffordable public sector pension schemes.

“It seems inevitable that, regardless of who is in power, this will prompt industrial action on an unprecedented scale in recent times. Clearly unions are gearing up for this. Some private sector companies face similar issues.

“One ingredient in this, over the next three to four years, will be the use of temporary workers to ‘supplement’ the permanent [ie liable to go on strike] workforce, ensuring that vital services can continue without interruption.”

The use of agency workers to break strikes is on the rise. But the bosses also want to use agency staff as a mechanism to undercut workers’ conditions across the economy.

On average, agency workers earn a third less than non-agency employees.

More often than not agency workers are kept on the minimum wage for years, while their non-agency colleagues earn thousands of pounds more for doing exactly the same jobs.

The plight of 850 agency workers who lost their jobs at BMW’s Cowley plant at the beginning of the year without receiving company redundancy pay highlighted the vulnerability of those not directly employed.

It also showed how many such workers often work for the same firm for years, rather than moving from company to company over a few months.


More than two-thirds of the 10,000 jobs being slashed at BT are agency or temporary workers. Both BMW and BT hired some of their workforce through the Manpower recruitment agency.

Manpower is also the main company recruiting temporary workers for Royal Mail. Ironically, the CWU union has a union recognition and partnership agreements with the agency at BT. It states that “Manpower have a policy of not asking workers to cross a picket line”.

But in the run up to a British Airways strike in 1997 Manpower was used to recruit hundreds of temporary workers for the company.

It employs over 30,000 people through a network of over 300 offices. In 2007, Manpower made $22 billion worldwide. Despite this, many workers suffer from low and insecure pay.

Manpower’s handbook says, “Your pay rate may go up or down, both between assignments and/or in the same assignment, according to the requirements of our clients and the needs of our business.”

For many workers the reality of even the most “respectable” agencies is instant pay cuts, 70-hour weeks, unpaid overtime, no holidays, rotten conditions and instant dismissal.

This was revealed when a number of employers spoke of their attitudes to using agency workers in a study by London Metropolitan University.

One food company cited flexibility of labour as a key reason for using agency staff. This meant that “if somebody proves to not be very good for the job and creates problems, the agency can immediately replace them”.

Another company referred to agency workers’ flexibility by saying, “If they are not obedient or good for the job, they are immediately replaced.”

One company was “strict” in checking that agency staff did not work too many hours, but this only happened if agency workers were working in excess of 60 hours a week.

Another defined “reliable” workers as those who “would not be ‘picky’ and would not have any preferences for the day nor the time of the assignment”.

The drive to privatise services has led to a huge rise in the use of agency workers. The government is also pushing people into agency work as part of its welfare to work scheme.

While bosses want agency workers to be pliant and accept worse terms and conditions than permanent workers, many do not see it the same way. In some cases they have organised to resist.

In 2007, workers in Salford showed how the tide could be turned on attacks on agency staff. Over 50 agency workers had been employed as refuse workers for between 12 months and five years on lower wages, without any potential for permanent status.

A dispute was sparked after it was revealed that the agency workers had to queue at 5am each morning to discover if they had a day’s work – a practice the council no longer continues.

Refuse workers held a series of one-day strikes and won an end to this two-tier pay structure. After the strike action the council agreed to make the jobs permanent.

One of the agency workers told Socialist Worker at the time, “This is brilliant. I’ve worked as agency staff for the council for three years. We have no equality, no equal pay, and no equal sickness pay with full-time staff.

“But everyone stuck together and the council has had to give me my rights.”

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