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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Are temps still second best?
By Christina Morton
Professional Support Lawyer, Beachcroft Wansbroughs

Christina Morton

This week is National Temporary Workers' Week, an initiative aimed to highlight the work of more than one million temporary workers in the UK. While working as a temp can be rewarding and flexible, are temporary workers still second best when it comes to their workplace rights?

Temporary workers have often been looked upon as the poor relations of their permanent counterparts at work, but are times changing?

There is now employment protection for many types of worker previously excluded from most employment rights, largely as a result of European legislation which has had to be put into effect in the UK.

However, not all temporary workers have benefited.

When is a temp not a temp?

There is an important distinction to grasp between temporary employees and temporary workers who are not technically employed with the firm they work for - normally because they are on the books of an employment agency and are placed with clients of the agency to carry out specific assignments.

There is a world of difference in the rights enjoyed by these two categories of worker.

Temporary, or fixed term employees, were one of the most recent groups to benefit from extended employment protection.

There is nothing to stop a temporary employee acquiring most of the rights permanent employees enjoy
Christina Morton

From October 2002 they have had the right in the UK to receive equivalent or comparable terms and conditions to their permanent counterparts unless their employers can make a valid business case for treating them differently.

The government also repealed in October 1999 a long-standing provision which allowed them to require employees on fixed term contracts to contract out of their right to claim unfair dismissal when the contract finished.

As a result of these reforms there is nothing to stop a temporary employee acquiring most of the rights permanent employees enjoy.

Moreover a temporary employee who remains with the same employer for more than four years will find that the contract is converted by law into a permanent contract after that time has elapsed.

Agency temps

However only those with a contract of employment with the organisation they are working for can benefit from these new rights.

Agency temps are in a very different position. Most of them are treated as not employed by anyone and this severely restricts the range of employment rights they can rely on.

They do have protection from discrimination on the grounds of their race, sex or any disability (and will have protection under the new laws on religious and sexual orientation discrimination later this year).

They are also entitled to the national minimum wage and protection under the rules on working time.

However, they cannot, for example, acquire a right not to be unfairly dismissed, nor can they benefit from family-friendly legislation.

Not all agency temps are dissatisfied with their lot

The European Union has this year tried unsuccessfully to push through legislation which would have given agency temps the right to equivalent terms and conditions to permanent employees of the organisations they are placed with.

However, no agreement was reached on the scope of the protection agency temps should enjoy and the legislation may now be abandoned.

Legal limbo

The legal 'limbo' agency temps find themselves in has been commented on critically by the courts when agency workers have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to establish that they are employed by someone - either the client they are placed with or the agency which hires them out.

The government has also recognised that there is a problem and has consulted on ways in which more rights might be extended to those, such as agency temps, who are not adequately covered at present.

But not all agency temps are dissatisfied with their lot.

Many enjoy the freedom temping gives them to work when they choose, perhaps combining work with other pursuits such as travelling, study or building up a career in another field.

For those for whom job security or long term relationships with colleagues are not a priority temporary work can be an attractive and flexible option.

Further information

If you are a temporary employee or a temporary worker with a problem where can you turn for help?

The Department of Trade & Industry website includes frequently asked questions for agency workers and advice on how to complain about an agency at

The site also contains detailed guidance on fixed term employees and their rights at

The arbitration service ACAS has a website at

and runs a national helpline on 08457 474747.

The TUC website also has some basic advice for temporary workers:

The opinions expressed are Christina Morton's, not the BBC's. The advice is not intended to be definitive and should be used for guidance only. Always seek professional advice for your own particular situation.

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