Secret Agents: agency workers in the new world of work

Published on Jobs, Skills and Pay

Through the course of this report we have uncovered much new information about the lives of the UK’s ‘secret agents’. We have found two groups of agency workers – the permanent and the self-employed – who have been missing from all previous accounts. We have discovered what agency workers do, where they work and who they are. And, critically, we have found that there is a significant pay penalty attached to being an agency worker, with only little evidence to suggest that other features of this way of working compensate for this loss.

Key findings

  • To begin, we need to improve our understanding of the previously unacknowledged groups of agency workers. Why do people consider themselves to be permanent in this role for example? Are they working for the same client firm for a number of years? Do they have back-to-back assignments? Or are they on ‘pay between assignments’ contracts?
  • Equally mysterious are the agency workers who regard themselves as self-employed. Exploring the overlap between agency work, self-employment and other contingent forms such as zero-hours contracts is clearly a fruitful field for future work.
  • Improving our understanding of why firms use agency workers will be critical if we are to improve our assessment of whether the upward trend in agency worker use will endure.
  • And critically, what is the role that policy, firms and agencies themselves can play in ensuring that agency working is not to become an enduring form of precarious work?