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opinion piece

COVID-19: Safeguarding work by protecting people, labour market and economy

The global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus poses a major and unprecedented challenge to economies and societies around the world and has also severely impacted the private employment services industry, writes Michael Freytag, WEC-Europe’s Public Affairs Manager.

Published on 2nd April 2020

Agency work, as the core service of the private employment services industry, has been particularly hit by the virus crisis. Firstly, agency work activity is closely linked to economic cycles and GDP; secondly, because agency work is a highly labour-intensive service.

In some countries, the COVID-19 crisis has cut down the number of agency workers by 50% to 70% over the last couple of weeks.

While in many sectors the use of agency workers has been reduced drastically due to lock-down measures (manufacturing, hospitality, construction, non-food retail), some other sectors, such as healthcare, transports & logistics and retail, are desperately looking for staff to meet the challenges ensuing from the crisis.

In these sectors, agency workers are being employed to fill in for sick workers, to meet the unexpected peak of activities and to cover the tasks of those staying at home. At this stage, containing the pandemic and servicing people is the top priority for the private employment services industry.

Since the outbreak of the crisis, members of the World Employment Confederation-Europe have been highly pro-active in informing workers and companies on the management of health and safety risks and securing equal access to support measures for agency workers (e.g. sick leave, short time work).

First and foremost, the priority of the private employment services industry is to protect the health and safety of workers. In Belgium, the national federation Federgon asked the public authorities to close down the service-to-individual sector as it was the only way to protect the health and safety of its 140,000 workers (cleaning and ironing services organised via a service-voucher system).

In France, agency workers have the possibility to take an on-line medical examination required before they start an assignment (thanks to a partnership between the sectoral social fund and Mediaviz).

In Italy, a collective labour agreement has been signed by social partners from the agency work sector: ten million euros has been allocated from a solidarity bipartite fund to protect the continuity of employment and pay of agency workers.

In order to keep the labour market as fluid as possible, the industry is also mobilised to ensure smooth labour market transitions for those losing their jobs due to the economic consequences of COVID-19, using digital solutions to maintain activities such as job vacancies posted on-line, on-line skills assessment, possibility to e-sign labour contracts and video-interviews.

The Dutch national federation ABU developed an app offering information on the collective labour agreement, thus providing workers with the chance to be informed of their rights even when physical branches are closed. In Spain, the industry has announced an offer of free training and job programmes for citizens, including those who are unemployed.

It is essential that agency workers are able to benefit from adequate access to and coverage by special sick payments measures introduced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For our sector, it is critical to ensure easy and quick access to government funding for large companies and SMEs to avoid lay-offs and reduce the detrimental impact the crisis brings to all employers.

The private employment services industry should have equal access to governmental programmes addressing the impact of COVID-19 and benefit from the same access to funding as other businesses, including short-time working schemes.

The World Employment Confederation-Europe welcomes the efforts taken by the EU institutions and calls for a strong, coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the European Union, focusing on information exchange, coordination, access to funding and support for people and companies.

We are willing to engage at EU level with our social partner UNI-Europa through the Sectoral Social Dialogue on temporary agency work to identify measures addressing the impact of COVID-19 and protecting the health, safety and employment opportunities of agency workers during and after the crisis.

In the current context, it is fundamental to maintain an open and fluid European single market. Temporary border controls and health checks are needed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but these need to be proportionate.

Where possible, the free movement of workers should be maintained to keep up economic activity as long as health guarantees are ensured. This should be applied mainly for areas that depend on the cross-border mobility of workers.

Already prior to the crisis several countries in Europe faced labour shortages for certain professions and skills, and this should not be exacerbated.

Once economic recovery begins, the private employment services industry – and specifically its temporary agency work services – will be among the first to bring workers back into quality employment, using its experience in managing labour market fluctuations.

To make full use of this job creation potential, we need an enabling labour market environment with efficient cooperation between public and private employment services, that allows the latter to deploy the broad spectrum of activities – including career management services – and facilitate skills and training solutions that empower workers to swiftly manage labour market transitions, either to previous occupations or to new jobs.

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