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The invisible hand of the EU Temporary and Agency Workers Directive

Written by Jon on . Posted in Essays

How do you disguise a reduction in worker’s welfare as an increase in worker’s rights? In this essay I will discuss the systematic promotion of temporary work in Europe. I will first examine the European Union’s directive on temporary agency work. I will look at why the European Union is promoting temporary employment and how this is presented to the working population as a measure to increase worker’s protection. I will then look at the criticism from the trade unions. Finally I will conclude that the directive, although claiming to protect the worker, is designed to increase the competitiveness of European firms at the expense of the European worker’s welfare.

In 2008, the European Union implemented its directive on temporary agency work (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008). The directive is a major step forward in terms of normalizing the idea of employment though temporary work agencies. The directive is designed and marketed as a directive protecting the rights of those who are temporarily employed. This is well exemplified by the following quote from the introduction of a European Commission article on the topic. “The Directive on Temporary Agency Work (2008/104/EC) defines a general framework applicable to the working conditions of temporary workers in the European Union. The Directive aims to guarantee a minimum level of effective protection to temporary workers and to contribute to the development of the temporary work sector as a flexible option for employers and workers.” (European Commission, 2013). While a directive for protecting the rights of temporary agency workers might initially sound promising, it is, in this author’s opinion, just a back door way to demote decades worth of increase in worker’s rights.

The directive is two faced. On the one hand, it regulates the conditions of temporary agency work, and by doing so normalizes temporary work by legitimizing it in the eyes of the worker. On the other hand, it regulates Member States possibility to restrict temporary agency work. Evidence for this claim is best found in the directive itself, where it is stated that “[p]rohibitions or restrictions on the use of temporary agency work shall be justified only on grounds of general interest relating in particular to the protection of temporary agency workers, the requirements of health and safety at work or the need to ensure that the labour market functions properly and abuses are prevented.” (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008).

It has long been a goal of the European Union to increase the proportion of temporary workers in Europe. Philip McMichael writes that, “[b]y a European Union requirement, European governments are relaxing labor laws and generating new part-time jobs, at the rate of 10 percent a year, to improve the flexibility of European firms competing in the world market” (McMichael, 2008, p. 102). The European Union’s long and ongoing fight against permanent employment has for now culminated in the aforementioned directive on temporary agency work. What does this mean for the workers of Europe?

To answer this question, I look to the workers and their representatives. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions writes that “[t]he working situation for those who are temporarily employed is very unpredictable. Extensive use of temporary employment will form the foundation for worsened living conditions – by making it more difficult to obtain loans, problems regarding illness and disability, family establishment and more. Increased use of temporary employment contacts and temporary work agencies will be particularly serious for young workers. Temporary employment can in other words create a welfare problem for many, and particularly the younger fraction of the work force.” (LO Norway, 2012, the author’s translation).

The introduction of the temporary agency work directive, officially designed to improve the conditions for those who are temporarily employed, is the invisible – or rather concealed – hand of the European Union working to increase its proportion of temporary workers. The increase in the proportion of temporary workers has severe consequences for the welfare of Europe’s workers.

In this essay I have discussed the institutional promotion of temporary employment in Europe. I have first examined the EU’s directive on temporary agency work. This examination has shown what is the reason for the promotion of temporary employment and how the directive is presented to the population. The essay concludes that temporary employment is promoted by the EU to improve the competitiveness of European firms at the expense of the European worker, under the disguise of improving worker’s conditions.


European Commission. (2013). Working Conditions. Temporary Agency Workers. Accessed in January 2013. http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706&langId=en&intPageId=207
LO Norway. (2012). Uttalelse: Nei til vikarbyrådirektivet. Accessed in January 2013. http://www.lo.no/u/Distrikt/Aust-Agder/Nyheter/Uttalelse-Nei-til-vikarbyradirektivet/
McMichael, Philip. (2008). Development and Social Change, Fourth Edition. California: Pine Forge Press.
Official Journal of the European Union. (2008). Directive 2008/104/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on temporary agency work. Accessed in January 2013. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2008:327:0009:0014:EN:PDF


BA Business Economics and Administration.