Covid-19 crisis: the need to protect all workers

15, April

By Denis Pennel, Managing Director, World Employment Confederation The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus poses a major ...

By Denis Pennel, Managing Director, World Employment Confederation

The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus poses a major and unprecedented challenge to economies and societies worldwide. Needless to say, the outbreak of the Covid-19 has severely impacted the private employment services industry, like many other sectors across the economy. 

As a core HR service provided by private employment services, agency work has been particularly hit by the virus crisis, for two main reasons. Firstly, because the level of activity of agency work is directly connected to the evolution of GDP (which has faced a strong decrease due to the much needed containment measures adopted by governments around the world). Secondly, because agency work is a highly intensive labour service, employing millions of workers across the globe.

In some countries, the Covid-19 crisis has cut down the number of agency workers by 50% to 70% over the past couple of weeks, which is an unprecedent situation.

Private employment services have been working around the clock to re-allocate workers across the economy. While in many sectors the use of agency work has been reduced dramatically due to lock-down measures (manufacturing, hospitality, construction, culture & arts, non-food retail), some other sectors are desperately looking for agency workers to make up for the unexpected surge in activity: healthcare, retail (supermarkets), transport and logistics, food processing. In these sectors, agency work is being used to replace sick workers, those working from home or unable to work because they need to take care of their children. In the Netherlands, the industry has developed an on-line platform to share job vacancies and reallocate workers suddenly out of work to assignments in urgent need of workers.  

From the industry’s point of view, the priority issue is, of course, the impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Therefore, in countries affected by the virus, measures have been adopted to protect agency workers as well as the staff being employed in branches. Information about health and safety at work has been actively disseminated (dedicated websites have been created in most countries) and teleworking has been facilitated where possible, thanks to digitalisation solutions that the industry has been investing in for several years (job vacancies available on-line, possibility to e-sign labour contracts, video-interviews, etc.). In Belgium, the industry has asked the public authorities to close down the services-to-individual sector as the only way to protect the health and safety of its 140,000 workers (cleaning and ironing services organised via a service-voucher system).

A second priority is to ensure that agency workers are being protected against and compensated for the loss of work assignment. At national level, WEC members have been liaising closely with governments to ensure that agency workers are included and covered by short-time working schemes, have the possibility to benefit from paid leave to take care of their children and are being covered by sick leave measures like any other workers. In the UK, the industry has been calling on the government to fund statutory sick pay for every worker (including agency workers), with quicker access to state support. In the Netherlands, the agency work trade body has secured that agency workers will benefit from all the Covid-19 relief measures that the Dutch government is putting in place. The principle promoted by the World Employment Confederation is that agency workers should be covered in the same way as other workers when it comes to access to support measures adopted by public authorities.

Last, but not least, the industry has implemented some specific initiatives to protect agency workers. In Italy, a collective labour agreement has been signed by social partners from the agency work sector: ten million euros have been allocated from a solidarity bipartite fund to protect the continuity of employment and pay of agency workers. In France, agency workers have the possibility to take on-line medical examinations (thanks to a partnership between the sectoral social fund and Mediaviz). 

All these measures illustrate that private employment services act as a responsible and solution-orientated industry, in order to ensure that all workers, particularly those in diverse forms of work, have the social safety nets and protection they need in this unprecedent situation. As in ordinary times, the private employment services industry stands for its people and will do its utmost to support workers navigating a stormy world of work.