Research project finds in agency work sector elements for success in fostering social innovation

A research project led by CEPS and the Catholic University of Leuven/HIVA analyses the success factors and potential for replicability of initiatives put in place by social partners in the agency work sector to improve training, working conditions and social protection of workers. The findings were discussed by a panel of EU stakeholders during an online event on December 1st.

Published on 2nd December 2020

As the world of work changes – even more so through the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, more and more sectors will need to rely on flexibility and diverse forms of work. “The agency work sector has always operated on that model,” explained Willem Pieter De Groen from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) as he introduced the results of the research project he conducted with the Catholic University of Leuven/HIVA for the World Employment Confederation-Europe and UNI-Europa. “That has made it a frontrunner in developing new solutions to the challenges linked to flexible work in the areas of training, social protection and working conditions. The agency work sector has therefore a high potential to exchange with other sectors and share the lessons learned from the initiatives it has put in place”.

Examples of such initiatives were presented during the online event organized by the European sectoral social partners on December 1st: the healthcare benefits offered by the FAST.TT in France, the training tools developed by Travi in Belgium and the accidents protocol designed by ASEMPLEO in Spain. Like for the other practices surveyed for the research project, sectoral social dialogue and multi-actor cooperation were essential to trigger and enable social innovation. The research team also conclude that social dialogue is an essential ingredient to drive upscaling and replicability of the initiatives developed in the agency work sector in other sectors.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all, but the research project also shows elements that can be considered. To solve skilling challenges, digital tools appear as a clear advantage and solving the funding issue is also fundamental. The agency work sector overcome that challenge through the setting up of bipartite funds, equally funded by the sector’s employers and trade unions. In the area of working conditions, using a modular approach – starting from small-scale, pilot projects and then expanding – has proven effective, as issues are usually more sector-specific and multifaceted. Finally, regarding social protection, the best practices from the agency work sector are potentially universally replicable if the appropriate regulation, institutional contexts and financing are in place.

Social protection was a big focus during the panel discussion. As Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division at the OECD pointed out, the Covid-19 has only accentuated the gaps that still exist across diverse forms of work: “Social protection frameworks in place surely affect the prevalence of certain forms of work, and there are different approaches around the world on how to ensure protection for different groups of workers.” 

“Social dialogue is clearly our competitive advantage in Europe,” assessed Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa. “The social partners are at the core of our systems, but we need governments to strengthen that even more and promote this kind of collaboration as the solution to the challenges arising.” He pointed out to platform work as one example where the experience of the agency work sector could be used to deal with changing employment relationships.

The European Commission clearly agrees on the potential role that social partners can play in fostering social innovation, in particular for social protection. “Despite positive developments, and especially measures taken during the Covid-19 crisis, there are still many obstacles to effective social protection. Rules on time and income thresholds are one example,” explained Dana-Carmen Bachmann, Head of Unit ‘Modernisation of Social Protection System’ at the European Commission’s Employment department. She shared that the Commission is finalising a monitoring framework that will map the gaps in social protection that still exist in the EU Members States across diverse forms of work. Member States will have to submit national plans with measures they intend to implement to close the gaps in social protection and the Commission clearly encourages them to involve social partners in designing such plans.

Investing in the capacity of sectoral social partners, fostering social dialogue, collaborating with policymakers and stakeholders facilitating access to funding for national social partners at European and national level as well as using the opportunities offered by new technologies such as automation, digitalisation and artificial intelligence are all part of the joint recommendations that the World Employment Confederation-Europe and UNI-Europa have adopted as their joint project concludes.  Both organisations now hope that their work can serve as inspiration for others to develop new solutions for working, learning and social protection.


To find out more about the social protection coverage of agency workers, in comparison with other forms of work, have a look at our Social Impact Report 2020 “Protecting people through times of crisis”.

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