Ministers face revolt over rights for agency workers

Colin Brown,Deputy Political Editor
Friday 22 February 2008 01:00
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The Government today faces its biggest backbench rebellion since the ban on foxhunting in support of a private member's Bill that aims to give agency workers the same rights as other employees.

The exploitation of temporary and agency workers, exacerbated by the influx of workers from EU states such as Poland and Latvia, has turned into a highly embarrassing issue for the Government, with campaigners urging a crackdown on employers who have no qualms about keeping pay low, safety protection minimal and paid leave non-existent.

Ministers are vehemently opposed to the Bill, which the CBI claims will put thousands of jobs at risk by raising employment costs, but Labour MPs are braced for a major rebellion to force the measure through its Second Reading in the Commons today.

Dennis Skinner, the leftwing Labour MP, is one of those leading the rebellion. He said he believed there more than 100 Labour MPs would support it.

Unite, the public service union, has been lobbying Labour MPs to support the Bill introduced by the Labour MP Andrew Miller. Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of Unite, estimated there were 1.4 million agency workers in the UK. "It is exploitation," he said. "In the last century we fought against this inhumane treatment and we are not going to accept its return today."

John Cridland, the deputy director general of the CBI, said: "Very few temporary workers qualify as vulnerable and even fewer are exploited. This type of abuse demands more effective enforcement, not a raft of new laws."

Campaigners for the Bill used an undercover worker to show how firms exploit the agency workers. "I was to be put on a machine by the manager [at a manufacturing supplies company]," the worker said in his report. "The machine has a hot spike that heats brass pins and puts them in plastic boxes for screws to go into later. This spike gets very hot yet there was no guarding, no personal protective equipment.

"I was shown what to do once and left to get on with it. This is pretty much standard practice with agency workers. If an agency worker stops to talk to someone they are immediately told to get back to work."

He went on: "I was paid £5.62 an hour. I was told that if I lost any hours during the week, even if this was for sickness, the rate would drop back to £5.52 (the national minimum wage)."

The worker's diary was put on the Unite website last night. In it, he described how jobs advertised in Government-run job centres were linked to agencies who required new workers to sign on with them.

He met a Hungarian agency worker who had to pay a £350 administration fee, and £3 each time he had cheques cashed. He said a gangmaster who lives on the south coast and runs the Hungarian gangs of workers in the Midlands was violent and made them afraid to complain.

"The gangmaster intimidates the workers and has been known to use acts of violence," he said. "Just over a week ago this guy assaulted a young woman in a disco in the town: he broke her face, there was blood everywhere. They came to the UK expecting to be paid £400 per week and now have all resigned when it became apparent that what they had been promised in Hungary was not true and that they would not earn anywhere near £400."

He added: "These workers were brought over by a major UK food agency to work in a poultry processing factory."

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