Wires to the Internet have been crackling with rage as freelancers attack agency contracts that deny them the right to leave a job early. Lynne Curry reports
IT freelancers who work through contract agencies are being urged not to sign "one-sided" contracts that prevent them from leaving a job before the term is up.

There is growing resentment among freelancers that while they may be given a month's notice by their employer, and the job terminated if the project finishes before schedule, they may face hefty demands for lost agency fees if they opt out early themselves.

Furious exchanges between freelancers and one agency reverberated for two weeks down buzzing lines to a contractors' forum on Computer Information Exchange (CIX). The agency involved, Span (part of Computer People), was said to insist that contractors complete the whole term of their contract or compensate the agency with the full amount of fees it would have earned.

When Span reacted by trying to silence the complaints with a lengthy reply from Dave Pinto, its contracts sales manager, wires to the Internet crackled with rage. Span, one of the first companies to use the Net for advertising its job vacancies, decided to drop out of the discussion after its original posting.

CIX has 13,000 members, of whom 1,000 could have witnessed the online


Liza, the otherwise unidentified contributor to the CIX contractor forum who kicked off the debate, said she had "very foolishly" signed a Span contract for a year. "They also have a clause saying that if you leave early, you have to pay them all the money they would have got if you stayed until the end.

"I had not looked for a contract for some time, and they led me to believe it was standard practice. It is the only time that I have been so unhappy in a job that I actually considered trying to leave before the end of the year. I rang Span and asked if there was any possibility of leaving early, and they basically said, 'Tough luck, you signed the contract and you'll have to stay there.' "

Two days later, Span waded in, "in the spirit of free speech", with Mr Pinto's response. "It is entirely Span's right to propose terms of its own choosing in such agreements, as indeed it is entirely the right of the contractor to choose not to accept them," he said. "Client companies pay both the agency and the contractor fees and it is the client's wishes, coupled with market forces, that determine how viable our standpoint is."

Mr Pinto, accused in the forum of "opening his mouth and planting both feet in it", declines to comment further. But Span's sales director, John Gavan, denies that Span recovered full fees to compensate the agency for loss of earnings. "If the company suffers a significant loss through breach of contract, we may exercise our contractual rights, which merely reflect the common law position." But, he adds, "It is extremely rare for this to occur."

The agency is not alone in including a "no notice" clause. Three of the agencies that do allow the contractor to give notice are BCL, Modus and Software Personnel. Freelancers are now being urged to take a stand and refuse to sign anything else.

Raphael Mankin, a contractor, says he always refuses to sign contracts in which the notice terms are not symmetrical, as they generally mean that the contractor has no right at all to give notice. He has also refused to sign a contract that said he would "travel anywhere at the client's request", with no mention of "by agreement", reasonableness, or refund of expenses.

David Bevan, of the agency Hunterskil, defends "no notice" clauses. He claims Hunterskil has never sued a contractor who broke an agreement. "These clauses are fairly common. If you take someone on for three months on a special job, you want them to do it for three months, after which they can say 'thanks for all the fish' and go.

"If a contractor gets a better offer of 50 quid more down the road and ups sticks and leaves, it's obviously not satisfactory. Continual early termination brings the industry into disrepute."