Trade unions propose directive on employment agencies and temporary agency work

MB – 06/2023

On 31 May, the European Federation of Food, Agriculture, and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) organised a Conference on "Mobile and Migrant Workers: What's the Road ahead for their Protection in Europe?” which was attended by trade union representatives, EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit and three Members of Parliament (MEPs): Dennis Radtke (EPP/ DE), Gabriele Bischoff (S&D/DE) and Nikolaj Villumsen (Left/DK).

The main focus was on the situation of migrant or mobile workers employed in the agricultural, food processing and tourism sectors. The spotlight was on work through employment agencies and the situation of temporary workers on the EU labour market. EFFAT has presented a draft directive on better regulation of work through employment agencies and equal treatment of temporary agency workers.

Reality is the best information/ educational tool

With this statement, MEP Bischoff described the grievances that many labour migrants experience in the various European labour markets. Women and men from EU Member States, but also from third countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, Philippines), some of whom have been employed for a very long time through employment agencies or as temporary workers, had their say.

Those affected report that their actual working hours are not recorded correctly, thus receiving less pay. People who are employed with the involvement of employment agencies describe how only a fraction of their actual wage remains due to various "commissions", while fees for the employment agency, the transfer to the place of work or even work tools are deducted from their actual remuneration.

EFFAT's approach to better regulation

With their proposal for a directive, the trade unions are pursuing three main objectives:

  • equal treatment of all workers in a company,
  • regulation of the activities of employment agencies and creation of a register, as well as
  • better and more efficient labour checks.

Equal treatment of all workers should result in equal pay for equal work. Therefore, no subcontracts should be awarded for core activities of a company. Also, the number of subcontractors shall be limited to three subcontracts, so that there is more transparency as to who is the main contractor and subcontractor. Liability is to be regulated in the sense of joint and several liability for the entire chain so that, in addition to the issue of remuneration, the proper payment of social security contributions and other social obligations are also ensured.

In the area of employment agencies, trade unions are calling for an EU register for all companies operating as recruitment or placement agencies on the EU market. It is important to have a clear regulation that any agency fees are not charged to the workers. For the trade unions, it is conceivable that certain sectors will be completely taken care of by the employment services of the Member State, thus completely depriving employment agencies of their field of action in these areas.

The third core objective laid down by the trade unions is the need for better, regular and efficient labour inspections in all Member States. This requires a clear definition and regulation of the competent bodies and their powers as well as cooperation between different bodies (e.g. social security, tax or customs authorities, possibly across borders). In this context, better digital cooperation between the authorities is called for.

Reaction from the perspective of the European Parliament

The trade unions' proposal met with the approval of the MEPs present. Equal treatment of migrant workers is an important concern for Bischoff. In her view, EFFAT's proposal comes at the right time, as the parties have to prepare for the European elections in 2024. On the topic of labour inspection, she referred in particular to the digitisation projects in the area of Regulation (EU) No. 883/2004, which will also contribute to better, digital control. 

Villumsen stressed that his group supports the proposal in view of the situation in the labour market, which is often characterised by exploitation and even crime. In his view, collective agreements can achieve equal rights for all workers. By intensifying labour inspections, compliance with the regulations can be checked. For him, too, a European, digital identity has the advantage that inspections are simplified and improved.

For Radtke, the European Commission can do more in the area of labour inspection and the European Labour Authority (ELA) could also take on more tasks here in the future. If criminal structures were uncovered in the course of inspections, cooperation between ELA and EUROPOL would also be conceivable for him. He expressly welcomes a transparency register for employment agencies in the EU.

What does the EU Commissioner say?

Commissioner Schmit stressed in response to the migrant workers' reports that in a social Europe there should be no distinction between local and migrant workers. The principle of equal rights for all applies. The problem with employment agencies, which reminds him of slavery in some cases, and the lack of inspections must be urgently addressed. EFFAT's proposal should be put on the to-do list for the new European Commission from 2024.