Career development & CSR: ask the expert

office-desk

I've heard that, later on this year, a new employment law will be passed, resulting in temporary workers having the same benefits and rights as permanent workers. Is this true?

The answer is: potentially. October 2011 heralds the introduction of major legislation changes in the workplace that will affect every organisation. The Agency Workers Regulations state that temporary workers — including those who are PAYE or umbrella employees — will have the right to the same basic working and employment conditions as their comparable permanent colleagues.

Some of these rights will kick in on day one and could include access to collective amenities, such as childcare facilities or car parking. These are perks that may traditionally have only been offered to permanent employees. Other rights will come into play if the temporary worker spends more than 12 weeks in an assignment with one company.

These rights are likely to give access to bonuses, car allowances, and paid time off for ante-natal appointments for the very first time. In addition, the temporary worker must earn at least the same rate of pay as their comparable permanent colleague.

The 12-week qualification clock will be cumulative, unless there is a break of more than six weeks. For example, a company might hire a temp for eight weeks until their assignment ends. A new project could then start a month later for five weeks. If the company were to hire the same temp for both the eight-week and the five-week assignment, the temp would cumulate a 13-week service period and thus fall under the regulations despite the month gap in between.

This is a huge change to labour laws in this country. And yet, according to research report Shifting Sands by our parent company Randstad, only 63% of companies are aware of the impending regulations. And, more worryingly, only 14% have conducted an impact assessment as to how this could affect them and what steps they need to take to ensure compliance.

This is dangerous ground as the legislation could be very tricky to administer and every breach will carry a financial penalty. According to some estimates, about 50% of working temporaries, on average per company, will fall under the legislation's scope. Although those contractors who truly operate their own limited companies will escape its net.

The UK is still awaiting final guidelines from the government on how to interpret the legislation and this is due in May. It is hoped these guidelines will cast more clarity on matters, such as how to work out who is a 'comparable permanent colleague'; what to do if amenities like car parks are already at capacity through current permanent staff usage; and how to deal with complex flexible benefits schemes.

But, as is usually the way with new legislation, it will be case law that paves the way to absolute certainty — not a comforting thought for any company caught out on the wrong side of the law.

Lucy Bousfield is manager of the insurance division at Joslin Rowe

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