Temporary and agency workers will soon be allowed the same pay and conditions as permanent staff after 12 weeks of employment.

Countless UK poultry businesses employ temporary and agency staff for seasonal work, maternity, sickness and holiday cover. But under new EU proposals, these businesses will be forced to offer staff the same pay and conditions as permanent employees after 12 weeks of work, piling further red tape and expense on an already burdened industry.

What does the new law mean?

The European Agency Workers Directive will offer all temporary workers and agency staff the same rights as permanent employees, including pay and holiday entitlement. In other European countries, this will apply from the first day of work, but the UK government has negotiated an extension so it only covers staff working for the same employer for 12 weeks or more.

When does it come into place?

The directive is still in its draft stage, says Gillian Watkins, associate practice lawyer at solicitor Eversheds. It now needs to be approved by the European parliament, which may amend it further, and once a final version is agreed, member states will have to implement it.

“We simply don’t know the fine detail yet,” she says. “All we know for sure is that it will happen in the next two years, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is assuming it will be in force in the UK in April or October 2010.”

How will this affect a poultry employer running a business?

The changes are likely to reduce options for both workers and employers, says Rob Newbery, chief poultry adviser at the NFU. “It is nice to have the flexibility to stand the unit down for a few months and this is going to make it more difficult to have that flexibility when running your business.”

Peter King of 2 Sisters Food Group says there is an important role for temporary and agency staff in the sector. “It offers our business the flexibility to adjust labour requirements during peak periods of demand that might arise due to seasonality or customer promotions,” he says.

“2 Sisters has a number of workers who chose, and would like to remain in, a temporary role, because of the greater flexibility it affords them. Clearly, it is in our interest to retain skilled, reliable employees and we tend to encourage these workers to apply for permanent positions as they arise. However, at the end of the day, it is important that employees and employers be given the flexibility to choose.”

Positive aspects of the new rules

The rules are designed to prevent abuse of temporary and agency workers – and will help anyone who is seeking more permanent employment in favour of temporary work.

But Jeremy Blackburn of the British Poultry Council says the integrated poultry sector, which has been using immigrant and agency workers for many years, is ahead of the game in already giving them the same rights as permanent employees.

Many firms have long-term arrangements with seasonal workers and place great value on them. “However, there may be an impact on smaller and seasonal farmers and the effect on availability of seasonal labour has yet to be seen,” says Mr Blackburn.

Concerns over the regulations

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) warns that the proposals could make many small firms uncompetitive and lead to greater unemployment. “The initiative was originally intended to protect the rights of temporary workers at the hands of rogue employers,” says chief executive Phil Orford. “However, yet again, it is the law-abiding small-business-owner who will suffer from additional regulation.”

Instead of providing flexibility for employers and fairness for workers, as claimed by business secretary John Hutton, the rules will seriously undermine the currently flexible labour market, warns Mr Orford. “Using agency staff is likely to become far less attractive for smaller firms. The added costs and red tape involved in employing temporary workers could leave many small businesses with serious staffing problems,” he says.

“Increased costs and bureaucracy are an unwelcome burden for our members at a time of financial uncertainty and we fail to see how these measures fit in with the government’s plans to reduce red tape for small firms by 25% by 2010.”