Over the past two decades temporary agency work has become an integral, growing and more visible part of the workforce in most countries, particularly across the OECD. This growth is closely associated with the temporary placement of workers on contracts who are hired to cover planned and unplanned labour shortages. In addition to providing the traditional services associated with employment agencies, the range of services offered and the sectors and occupations covered are far more extensive than they have been in the past. Consequently, the agency employment sector is now a major international services sector with several large corporations operating across many countries (Peck and Theodore, 2004).
Despite its visibility and apparent growth, the agency sector accounts for a very small workforce share of less than three per cent in most OECD countries (OECD, 1996). However, the peculiarities of agency employment make it difficult to be accommodated within the traditional labour force framework for the recording and measuring of employment and these peculiarities lead to problems in the area of employment regulation.
The Australian and Irish experiences with agency employment highlight many of the key conceptual, measurement and regulatory challenges. For example, although both countries are light regulators of agency employment, there are pressures for this situation to change. In Australia, the characteristics of regulation are its absence and ambiguity. Until recently this was also the case in Ireland though agency employment is now covered by European Union regulations. Nonetheless, these regulations have met with opposition in Ireland (and the UK) primarily from employers who utilise temporary workers to enhance labour flexibility and see the regulations as restricting. Moreover, the regulations themselves contain certain limitations in terms of their application. Through the Australian and Irish examples provided in this paper the peculiarities and regulatory problems associated with agency employment are evaluated.
Temporary Employment and Casual Employment
Before examining agency employment it is appropriate to consider the broad employment category of temporary employment in which agency employment is located. Under the umbrella of temporary work there are a number of distinctive employment arrangements including:
i. seasonal work,
ii. fixed-term jobs,
iii. irregular jobs,
iv. temporary agency jobs and
v. jobs that do not attract regular benefits or protection.
There are distinctive working arrangements that can be regarded as being temporary. For example, a temporary job may be identified, as in Australia (Campbell and Burgess, 2001), by its exclusion from the entitlements associated with regular employment. Depending on national systems of regulation, a temporary worker may be an employee or they could be self- employed. That is, the legal status of employment does not necessarily preclude temporary employment arrangements.
When we compare labour force statistics from Australia and Ireland, there are quite distinctive approaches to the definition and measurement of temporary employment (see Table 1). In Australia, there is a very broad approach that essentially divides the workforce into permanent and temporary workers. Each can be determined through the assumption that if a worker does not receive the benefits associated with permanent work (e.g. holiday pay and sickness benefits), then they must be a temporary worker (the Australian term is casual worker). In Ireland, there appears to be a narrower definitional approach that seeks to identify those workers who have an occasional or seasonal job, in addition to those people who are on fixed-term contracts. Accordingly, there is some similarity between the Australian and Irish definitions, since those workers with seasonal and occasional jobs do not receive the benefits or conditions associated with permanent employment. …