Europe to give temps right to equal pay

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New rights for agency "temps" were proposed by the European Commission yesterday, after a stormy battle in Brussels and in the face of opposition from UK employers.

The plans would ensure that more than half a million British temporary workers employed by agencies earn the same as those doing similar jobs in the office where they are working. The entitlement would kick in after six weeks in any single job.

Yesterday the initiative was attacked by the CBI as "unworkable" but supported by the Trades Union Congress which described it as an "overdue step".

The decision to go ahead was taken at a meeting described by one official as "fractious". Six of the 20 European commissioners voted against the plans, including Neil Kinnock, the vice-president, Chris Patten, the commissioner for foreign affairs, and Fritz Bolkestein, European commissioner for the internal market.

The row produced one notable exchange when Mr Patten's mobile phone rang. "It's your conscience," said Romano Prodi, European Commission president. "It's probably my daughter ringing to find out why she won't be able to find a temporary job any more," Mr Patten replied.

The British government, which had lobbied hard for the measures to be watered down, gave a cautious response. It is expected to fight for the six-week qualifying period to be lengthened. Before becoming law the proposed directive needs the backing of European Union ministers and of the European Parliament.

The European commissioner for social affairs, Anna Diamantopoulou, has already given ground. Although the measure would bar discrimination over pay, rest periods, night working and paid holidays, it will not cover pensions, social security contributions, bonuses or seniority pay. That means people filling in for more senior workers need not be given the same remuneration.

If agencies have a contract with workers which means people are paid for days when they are not found work, they will also not be covered.

Nevertheless John Cridland, deputy-director general of the CBI, said he was "deeply disappointed" because the measures "will undermine opportunities for people who want to do temporary work".

Ms Diamantopoulou dismissed claims that the measure will hit employment prospects. She pointed to research showing that employers use agency workers not because they can pay them less but because they can hire and fire them.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said it was an overdue step, but added: "There are still concerns that the proposals leave worrying loopholes. Too many businesses are using the lack of protection for agency workers to keep permanent parts of their business going with agency workers on worse terms and conditions."