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New EU directive: It's not a temporary measure

As a new EU directive comes into force in Northern Ireland, John Moore, director for recruitment company Hays in Northern Ireland, assesses what impact it will have on employers and our economy

Temporary agency workers play a vital role in the local economy. For the worker there's the variety of work - it's empowering and allows individuals to choose they type of work they do, where and for what duration.

For the employers, there's the flexibility that agency workers provide - businesses can bring in additional capacity when required and quickly fill skills gaps.

Agency workers are essential to all sectors. But the relationship between Northern Ireland's 22,000 agency workers and employers is changing. The Agency Workers Regulations will come into force on December 5. The EU directive is intended to protect the rights of agency workers, and it has already been in place across the rest of the UK since October 1.

There are a number of measures contained within the new regulations. They aren't intended to stop people working in temporary roles, but to ensure they receive comparable remuneration to their permanent counterparts.

Most significantly, they contain measures for agency workers to receive, after a 12-week qualifying period, the same basic pay and working conditions.

While much of the impact of the regulations will become clear after implementation, there's no question they will have an impact on business here. In our view, it is imperative that implementation occurs in a business-friendly and administratively light manner to ensure we don't damage our flexible labour market. But the impact in a profession like accountancy, where many temporary workers already earn the same - if not more - than permanent workers is likely to be limited.

So what can business do? The key is to prepare and carefully and sensitively manage the change that arrives in December. A number of different factors come into play with the new legislation, so it is important to discuss your individual situation with your agency.

Employers need to work hand-in-hand with their recruitment agencies to see how it will affect them, what the situation is for any new and existing temporary workers they take on and what processes to put in place to ensure they comply with the legislation.

There will be a review of these regulations - but at the moment this is only scheduled for two years after implementation. Our fear is that after initially, and perhaps unnecessarily, gold-plating EU legislation and then allowing two years before it is formally reviewed, it won't help businesses to contribute to economic growth. A review within a year would have been more appropriate and would have still afforded sufficient time to properly assess its impact.

A vibrant temporary workforce is an important factor in the UK's flexible labour market and was one of the key reasons unemployment stayed lower than expected in the recession, particularly in the case of the professional staffing markets in which Hays operates.

Hays has considerable experience in dealing with changes in recruitment markets. Last year we placed around 190,000 people into temporary assignments in 32 countries. We've seen regulatory changes in many regions.

But unfortunately the burden of employment legislation still continues, largely unabated, at a time when the government should be doing all that it can to support businesses. While the economy remains challenging, employers need to be encouraged to take on new staff and new legislation should be at a minimum, with a far greater emphasis on grown up conversations taking place between employers and employees.

However, in the meantime and with legislation like the Agency Workers Regulations coming into force imminently, businesses should use the coming weeks to familiarise themselves with the detail, take advice and prepare for change.