New laws covering agency staff

A Social Work Union Guide

Question:
I’ve heard that the legal situation for agency workers is changing at the moment. What is afoot and what does it mean for me as someone who is currently employed via a social work recruitment agency?

Answer:
At the beginning of October new laws were introduced that give agency workers a range of new rights. Some of them apply from day one, such as access to facilities and amenities, including canteens, workplace crèches, job vacancies and car parks.

It is a welcome step. Car parking, for instance, is frequently an issue for agency workers and the Advice and Representation (A&R) Service is aware of some local authorities that won’t allow agency social workers to use the car park, often leading such employees to incur significant parking charges, especially those based in city centres. As such, this is a welcome change.

The new laws mean that after 12 weeks of employment agency workers must be given ‘equal treatment’ to permanent employees. It doesn’t cover everything, however, so be warned. Exceptions include the entitlement to join an employee pension scheme, but more positively it does cover such crucial workplace benefits as holiday pay, a real breakthrough. The new regulations are certainly good news for agency social workers and are long overdue.

The two big issues we hear about at the A&R Service when talking with agency employed staff are problems around notice periods and references. Previously, agency workers were not entitled to the same notice periods as permanent members of staff. We often hear from locum social workers who are given a week’s notice, for example. Typically they tell us they were never told if there was a problem with their work but that because the employer had no obligation to them they had simply told them their period of employment was over.

Similarly, references are often provided after the agency worker has moved on. So if there is a problem with a reference then it is very hard for the social worker to have that rectified. In A&R we would always advise any social worker – agency or permanent – to see their reference before they leave, something the former often found much harder to do in instances where they were ejected from a position so swiftly.

These changes are significant and it’s likely that they will fundamentally change the nature of agency work. Interestingly, although individual agency social workers will benefit from them, they may also lose some of the flexibility, which is one of the main attractions of agency work. If hiring employers – for example local authorities – are expected to give full notice periods then it’s likely agency social workers will need to do the same if they want to move on to another job. As such agency workers will need to plan ahead more themselves and regard themselves as more akin to other members of the workforce than perhaps they did before.

The legislation is new and there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the specific entitlements of certain groups of workers, especially those who have self-employed status but are working at agencies. It is not clear yet whether independent social workers doing agency work will be covered by the new laws and with many agency social workers set up as limited companies it isn’t clear whether they will be entitled to equal treatment to permanent staff.

New regulations:

Some rights, such as access to car parking and job vacancies, begin on day one of the agency worker’s contract. Others, such as holiday entitlement, come into force after the agency worker has been working at the organisation for 12 weeks.

Under the law, an agency worker who has had their contracted terminated shortly before 12 weeks and is then rehired can take the employer to an employment tribunal if this happens three times. The employer may then have to pay a fine of up to £5,000.

For more information on the new regulations go to: www.bis.gov.uk/policies/employment-matters/strategies/awd

Published : 2nd January 2012*

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* Although BASW has prepared the information contained within Social Work Knowledge with all due care and updates the information regularly, BASW does not warrant or represent that the information is free from errors or omission. Whilst the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and BASW is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored or in any way interpreted and used by a user.