The risky business of agency work
Published: 8 May 2017
Liz Gardiner, Legal Rights Adviser, highlights the rights of pregnant agency workers who are at risk of losing out.
The rights of workers have been much in the news recently, as the courts decide whether ‘self-employed’ Uber drivers or Pimlico Plumbers are really ‘workers’ and thus should have access to minimum wages and holiday pay. However, there is another group of workers who don’t get much publicity and who may lose out because they don’t know their rights – pregnant agency workers. Experience from Working Families’ free legal helpline leads us to call for urgent legislative change. Many women calling our helpline don’t know if they have any rights at all when they are pregnant.
Agency workers who face health and safety risks at work are vulnerable. No one should be put at risk at work: both the end user and the agency have responsibilities here. But many, like a woman who worked for a care agency who called our helpline recently, struggle on doing too much lifting and getting exhausted and stressed when pregnant. She feared that raising her concerns would lead to her job ending, just when she needed the extra cash for the new arrival. Her concerns are valid: another agency worker who worked with a difficult and violent child in children’s home told us all her shifts were cut without warning as soon as she said she was pregnant.
But for those who have been with the same hirer for at least 12 weeks, this shouldn’t happen. Where risks are identified, they should be removed. If they can’t be removed, the woman should be offered suitable alternative work by their agency, with pay and conditions at least as favourable as the assignment she couldn’t complete. And where no suitable alternative work is available, the agency should suspend her on full pay to the end of her assignment.
Similarly, many agency workers are wrongly informed that they have to claim Maternity Allowance, when in fact they meet qualifying conditions and their agency should be paying them Statutory Maternity Pay. The difference matters: the first six weeks of SMP are paid at 90% of average pay, then 33 weeks at the flat rate, while Maternity Allowance is paid at the flat rate for the full 39 week period. The flat rate at present is £140.98, well under the national minimum wage for a week’s work, and every penny counts when you don’t have a right to return to a job after childbirth.
All pregnant workers are entitled to time off to attend antenatal appointments. If they’ve been with a hirer for 12 weeks or more, pregnant agency workers should be paid – by the agency – for time off for antenatal appointments. This doesn’t always happen – a pregnant worker may find her pay is docked or that she is asked to make up the time later in the week.
Working Families’ general election manifesto calls on all political parties to commit to a level playing field for workers and employees. This would protect and support parents and carers including agency workers in insecure work, reduce exploitation of staff and simplify the complicated employment status landscape for employers and employees. The Working Familes website has more information on agency workers’ rights.