The new stakes of temporary work

09.11.2011

Interim employment has become a recognised element on the European job market. More and more Europeans have chosen to - or are forced to - make use of this rather new form of occupation.

Temporary work receives increasing importance in the context of Europe’s labour market. The total number of interim workers as well as their share in the overall active population is growing in most EU countries as new tendencies in the interim sector arise. This increase must be seen in the light of high unemployment and shortage of qualified workers around Europe, which both call for increased flexibility and a need for alternative forms of occupation.

The problems and issues of interim employment have been the subject of an international conference that took place in Luxemburg this November. Coordinated by EURES Luxemburg, the event brought together a variety of stakeholders from public employment services, private interim agencies, trade unions, employers and academia to discuss the new stakes of temporary work.

Despite its growing proportion on the labour market and its social and economic implications, the role of interim work is often underestimated. Various studies have demonstrated that interim assignments facilitate most of the transitions within the labour market - job to job mobility, transition from unemployment to work, the integration of students in the job market etc. Temporary employment gives young people an opportunity to gain experience and offers individuals with no permanent occupation a chance to escape the vicious circle of unemployment. According to a survey carried out by the Belgian branch of interim agency Randstad, only around 10% of interim employees go back to unemployment after an interim job. On the other hand, more and more enterprises make use of temporary workers as a response to competition pressure, benefiting from the flexibility offered by interim contracts. The increase in the number of temporary workers is to a large extent a consequence of the changing needs of employers.

In some parts of Europe interim workers are active participants in cross-border mobility. In Luxemburg for example, a strikingly high percentage of people employed by temporary work agencies are cross-border workers. They live abroad, but chose to work in Luxemburg, attracted by the relatively higher wages and social security benefits. Residents account for as little as 20% of interim employees, while 80% are represented by workers residing in a neighbouring country. It is interesting to note that cross-border workers in Luxemburg are actually twice as often in temporary as in classical employment. On the other hand also some Luxemburg citizens chose to live abroad and commute to their home town. Moving, for example, to France and keeping their job at home, gives them the advantage of high salaries and lower living costs, as they become cross-border workers in their own country. Yet another example of this increasing “internationalisation” of the labour market is the case of work secondment, when, for instance, a Belgian worker, registered with an interim agency in Luxemburg is sent to work in Germany.

Despite the growing importance of interim work, many European countries have insufficient or unclear regulations on employment and contractual conditions in this sector. Furthermore, significant differences in national legislation persist. If we look, for example, at the legal regulations on maximum duration of temporary work assignments, we see a variation from up to three years in the Netherlands to only 15 days in Belgium, while in the UK there are no specific provisions for a temporary employment contract at all. That is why many actors see an urgent need for a uniform EU regulation on the subject.

Interim is a specific kind of temporary work, requiring a tripartite agreement between the worker, the employer and an intermediary agency. The motives for which job seekers choose this option of employment are numerous. They vary from lack of experience and skills to the personal preference of constant change of working environment. Despite some of the disadvantages of a temporary job, such as insecurity and discontinuity of revenue and social benefits, some people voluntarily choose to turn interim into their permanent form of occupation This brings about the controversial concept of “permanent” temporary workers, who are employed with interim contracts for periods of as long as ten years.

The specific nature of this type of employment implies a fair evaluation of the pros and cons of interim work. In order to avoid its transformation into what some refer to as a “second hand” labour market, the right balance must be found between the advantages in terms of flexibility on one hand and the risks of insecurity on the other.

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