The test of private employment agencies looks tougher at home

The issue of temporary employment, or, as it has come to be known in Greece, of personnel-on-loan, is emerging as something of a hot potato for the Greek presidency of the EU. The Labor Ministry will be called upon to find the golden mean among the conflicting views of the other member states, given the eagerness of the European Commission and of commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou for pushing through provisions strengthening such forms of employment. But the matter does not stop there; any new measures promoting the practice are also expected to evoke strong reactions in the Greek domestic social and political scene. The Commission’s draft proposal favors the promotion of the measure through private employment bureaus. The economic slowdown of recent years has made flexible forms of employment more attractive as means for fighting unemployment. In its document, the Commission, on the one hand, stresses that temporary workers must not be treated differently from permanent staff of a firm (the principle of non-discrimination) but recognizes there may be exceptions as regards their protection. It is proposed, for instance, that the principle of non-discrimination not apply in temporary work contracts of less than six weeks’ duration; irrespective of the level of pay, the Commission says that «if the employee continues to be paid by the private bureau during the interim period between one job and another, he/she is considered to enjoy adequate work protection.» Evidently, this opens the potential for some doubt about the validity of collective labor agreements. In its official publication «Social Agenda,» the Commission argues that implementation of its proposals will boost temporary employment, as «it meets the needs of both enterprises and working people, allowing firms to deal with fluctuations in production, while working people gain valuable experience without having to be tied to one employer.» In Greece, the breadth of reactions when the Labor Ministry adopted a rather strict framework of operating rules for personnel lending agencies, and the condemnation of this form of employment as «modern slave-trading» by the National Committee for Human Rights (proposed by the prime minister) are indicative of the potential reactions, which – as the government is keenly aware – will come during a pre-election, or even possibly an election, year. «Diamantopoulou’s aims do not always coincide with ours. She no doubt wants to press on with this piece of legislation and to be credited with the success, but our position will not be determined by this; besides, we have political differences with the Commission’s position,» said a minister who asked not to be named. The Greek presidency can probably not hope to avoid reactions at home, even though its role may even appear to be simply procedural, given the strong support for the measure in the union; it may just hope to avoid having to iron out strong differences between the other member states. Britain and Ireland, whose employment is substantially accounted for by private employment agencies, disagree with the proposal and believe it will cause serious difficulties in the operation of the bureaus. They suggest that the minimum period of employment for workers-on-loan to have equal rights with permanent ones should be 12 weeks, instead of the Commission’s six. By contrast, the French and the Germans are nearer the Commission’s position; in fact, Germany already applies what the Commission proposes, but is said to have agreed with Britain that the measure not apply throughout the Union. Still, negotiations are expected to be hard and the outcome may ultimately be the result of behind-the-scenes deals between members. In any case, they will affect not only the status of the estimated 2.2 million temporary employees in the EU (1.4 percent of total employment) but also the future form of the labor market itself.

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