Agency workers are the "forgotten face" in the debate surrounding insecure work and the gig economy, a new report says.
According to the Resolution Foundation, there has been a 30% increase in the number of agency workers in the UK since 2011, to 865,000, and this is expected to increase to a million people by 2020.
The low- and middle-income think tank said the plight of agency workers was comparable to that of workers on zero-hours contracts.
This lack of visibility was highlighted, the think tank claims, when the treatment of Sports Direct warehouse workers on zero-hour contracts led to action but the situation of agency workers was left unaddressed.
“We need to do a better job of understanding who this group of soon-to-be a million agency workers is,” said Lindsay Judge, senior policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation. "This fast-growing group is not just made up of young people looking for temporary employment as some have suggested, but instead includes many older full-time, permanent workers."
Half of all agency workers are working on a permanent basis and three-quarters say they work full-time, today’s report says. They can, on average, expect to earn £430 a year less than a non-agency colleague.
Judge said that while many agency workers value the flexibility that being employed through an agency brings, many are working this way out of necessity rather than choice.
“With the prospect of higher inflation squeezing living standards in the years ahead, it is important that the discussion of the non-traditional parts of work in modern Britain consider the relatively lower pay that agency workers receive compared to identical employees in similar jobs,” she said. “This merits serious examination from government, with an official measure of agency workers being a good place to start.”
As well as loss of earnings agency work incurs, because agency workers are not usually granted employee status they also lose out on sick pay and parental leave pay, and have no notice period.
The Resolution Foundation also found that while 54% of agency workers are men, women account for 85% of the growth in the number of temporary agency workers over the last five years.
MPs have launched a general inquiry into pay and working conditions in the UK after a series of revelations about the state of casual employment and the gig economy.
A BuzzFeed News investigation into working practices at online fashion retailer Asos earlier this year revealed allegations of exploitative contracts, onerous working targets, pay docking, and intrusive security searches.