By Thomas Carmichael (agency worker in the public sector)

Early last week, word began filtering out that agencies which are employed to fill vacancies across the public sector – namely Grafton and Premiere – had sent emails to their workers telling them, “In the event of your workplace closing, your placement is finished”. Furthermore, agency workers were told that, in the event of them falling ill or choosing to self-isolate to protect themselves or loved ones, they would receive only the meagre statutory sick pay (SSP) of £94/week, as opposed to the full pay that had been guaranteed to permanent public sector workers. As one agency worker put it, “I still live at home and both my parents are diabetic. Realistically, I need to self-isolate to protect them but SSP simply isn’t good enough. I need reassurance that I will either be made permanent or guaranteed equal treatment with permanent staff.”

As for many workers, what followed was a week of anxiety for agency workers across Northern Ireland as they worried what would become of them in the coming crisis. On Monday afternoon, thanks to union pressure on the NI Executive, the welcome news was received that agency staff would now receive pay as normal in the event of their workplace closing and would receive two weeks’ full pay in the event of them falling ill or choosing to self-isolate. While this announcement was a welcome one and provides some measure of comfort and security to affected workers, it simply does not go far enough. 

Agency workers are vital to the running of vast swathes of the public sector in Northern Ireland, including Child Maintenance Services, the Jobs & Benefits Offices and Health and Social Care. That they would be threatened with unemployment and/or having to try and survive on poverty sick pay is a disgrace, one that the NI Executive is effectively complicit in. The current crisis has laid bare the reality of precarious work, such as agency work and zero-hours contracts, with significant job losses also having beING seen in the hospitality sector. We can no longer tolerate this treatment of workers. 

In Britain, many agency workers in the public sector have been brought “in-house” as a result of this crisis. Things that we were told were impossible are now happening at the stroke of a pen. The Socialist Party demands that all agency workers currently employed in the public sector are made permanent immediately in order to provide them with security and stability in the coming period, as well as to protect our invaluable public services. Furthermore, we demand that workers across all sectors are fully compensated for lost hours, whether due to workplace closure, falling ill or needing to self-isolate. 

Sign our petition to demand agency workers working in the public sector are brought ‘in-house’ with permanent contracts.