Why study temporary work agencies?

Temporary agency work is now an established part of our flexible labour market. With agency-supplied labour, firms can limit their direct employee costs and responsibilities, which may help them achieve organizational flexibility in the face of market forces. Temp agencies are no longer simply seen as providing short-term answers to work vacancies created by sick or vacationing workers. Temp agency labour is increasingly used as a strategic alternative to direct employment in order to meet medium- and long-term staffing needs.

The temporary work agency sector is flourishing in advanced economies. In the United States, temporary help services more than doubled between 1990 to 2008, from 1.1 to 2.3 million workers. Similar percentage increases have been noted in most European Union countries.

What are the health and safety issues?

Temp agency work is an important area of research because it appears to be riskier than traditional work. According to statistics from around the world (quoted at a 2012 IWH plenary on temporary work agencies):

  • in the U.S., temp agency workers have higher workers’ compensation claim rates than those in standard work arrangements, and double the rates in the construction and manufacturing sectors;
  • in The Netherlands and Germany, temp agency workers account for as much as 13 per cent of occupational accidents, but hold only three per cent of the jobs;
  • in Finland, workplace accident frequency for temp agency workers is on the increase, despite a general downward trend among workers in the country's main industries.

Comparable statistics for Canada are not readily available. Statistics Canada has collapsed the various categories of temporary workers into one category in its analysis of temporary work, making it difficult to look at working conditions among temp agency workers on their own.

Temporary agency work is also worthy of study because it involves a different type of working relationship than the standard employer-employee relationship. It is built on a three-way relationship, in which a temporary work agency employs a worker who is then hired out to work for, and under the supervision of, a client.

The temp agency is generally considered to be the employer, but the legal and practical responsibilities of the agency and client are complex and can be confusing. This extends to the realm of occupational health and safety and workers' compensation.

For example, in Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act says that both temp agencies and their clients are considered the employer of temp agency workers while these workers are on a placement. However, workers' compensation policy, as set by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, says that temp agencies, not their clients, are responsible for covering temp agency workers under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.

These complex and sometimes ambiguous relationships have an effect on the management of health and safety and return to work by both temporary work agencies and their clients who hire temporary staff from them. This, in turn, potentially affects the health and well-being of temp agency workers.