Socialist Worker

Privatisation pushes employment agencies into the public sector

Issue No. 2177

An agency advertising for post workers during the strike

An agency advertising for post workers during the strike


Over the past decade, the use of temporary agency work has increased dramatically.

The European Confederation of Private Employment Agencies suggests that there are 6,000 officially designated employment agencies in Britain.

But in fact there are over 17,000 VAT-registered bodies operating as employment agencies.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation says there are 1,377,740 temporary workers “out on assignment in any given week” in Britain.

That is less than 5 percent of the national workforce.

Agency workers make up 86 percent of all workers on a temporary contract, and the sector’s financial turnover is around £24 billion a year.

Agencies do not have to have a license, except in industries covered by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish gathering, and food processing and packaging.

The truth is that pretty much anyone can set up an agency.

There is also the scam which has 400,000 construction workers falsely described as “self employed”, even though they get work through agencies.

Under the construction industry tax system, “bogus” self-employment can mean people lose out on social benefits as well as holiday pay, sick pay and employer pension contributions.

One estimate is that around a third of workers in the food and drinks industry are employed by agencies.

Many are low-paid migrant workers.

A TUC report found that 46 percent of recent migrants who had been made redundant did not receive redundancy pay, pay in lieu or any other kind of payment, compared with 33 percent of all workers.

The government’s drive for privatisation is pushing agency workers into the public sector.

For instance, total spending on long‑term agency staff – of which social workers made up the largest group – stood at £255 million in 2005, up from £148 million in 2001.

The UCU lecturers’ union said that some further education colleges employ more than 50 percent of their staff through agencies.

And the PCS union reports that agency staff make up 80 percent of workers in some parts of the civil service.


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