Distant Relatives: Precarity in the Agencies


Distant Relatives: Precarity in the Agencies

Agora #87

Precarity is increasingly common in the European public service, including in the agencies of the European Union.

Structure and location add to the problems of precarity in the EU agencies

Precarity – a position of uncertainty where your future depends on chance or events beyond your control – is increasingly common in the European public service, including in the agencies of the European Union. Despite their ‘independence’, decisions about jobs and careers, which affect the livelihoods of some 9.000 staff who work in the EU’s 43 decentralised and executive agencies, are taken ‘elsewhere’.

Agency staff numbers are controlled by the European Commission whose imperative seems to be to keep those numbers down. In 2012, the European Parliament, Council and Commission signed the ‘Common Approach’, which between 2013 and 2017, cut staff in other agencies to compensate for the staff needed by new or expanding agencies, such as Frontex which manages the EU’s borders. Following the Common Approach, seven agencies have a ‘sunset’ and 13 agencies a ‘review’ clause in their founding regulations, making it easier to merge and close them (1). Periodic agency evaluations now focus on cost-cutting and examine merging, or closing, the agency being evaluated. Distant authorities questioning the existence of the organisation you work for is always unsettling.

Many problems of precarity and uncertainty that are familiar to colleagues in other institutions can be exacerbated in agencies by the relatively small fixed number of staff on the agency’s table of posts.

New work demands and too many ‘priorities’ placed on smaller staff numbers, who need to ‘multi-task,’ blurs the lines between roles and responsibilities. This inevitably leads to contract agents being underpaid as they are recruited, or asked, to do the job of administrators and assistants. As in the larger institutions, contract agents in agencies also face the problem of reclassification to a higher function group, after taking on additional responsibilities. Reclassification for contract agents is difficult and can only be granted through a new contract, which can lead to the loss of employment conditions, or pension rights, or both.

[1] A provision in the founding regulation that closes the agency automatically after a fixed period unless that period is extended by amending the regulation.

Staff grades proscribed by the table of posts in agencies can also stymie career progress, as the unavailability of posts in the next higher grade can result in colleagues being stuck in a particular grade for many more years than the ‘average’ before promotion. Experience does not always help colleagues looking to gain promotion through a competition.

Agencies often launch the internal, inter-institutional and external phases of selection procedure at the same time, while contract agents, no matter how experienced they may be, cannot apply as internal candidates. Contract duration and renewals also vary in agencies, ranging, for example, from two years with a renewal for one more year, to two contracts of five years. Some agencies, as policy, do not award indefinite contracts.

Local issues

Agency staff also face specific job and career issues stemming from the unique circumstances of their location. Education for children of agency staff can be problematic. Most agency locations have no European school and many agency staff cannot educate their children in their mother tongue. Instead, they settle for their children learning in one of the more widely spoken European languages in a private school. This can be expensive, and application of the salary coefficient can reduce the education allowance so that it no longer covers school fees.

In one such case, the agency concerned contracted directly with international education providers in their location to cover school fees for children of their staff. However, such arrangements depend on the goodwill of directors and agency management boards and they can, at any time, be withdrawn. Provision and costs of childcare for pre-school and school age children also vary from country to country. In some it is very expensive, particularly for contract agents. Some agencies provide additional support for childcare, but again this depends on directors and management boards.

Flexibility not performance

It is unsurprising that some agencies have problems recruiting and retaining staff. The European Court of (ECA) noted that, in 2018, agencies employed some 1.500 IT consultants and interim staff and that agencies were increasingly dependent on private contractors to carry out core tasks[1]. The ECA also acknowledged the link between adequate resources and agency performance.

Sadly, the ECA does not question the value of the ‘flexibility’ that precarious work conditions theoretically bring to organisations. Any budgetary ‘flexibility’ is necessarily limited in public sector annual accounting. Precarious and uncertain work conditions bring no organisational advantages in terms of expertise, resilience or adaptability. Many of the obstacles to promotion, reclassification and indefinite contracts are policy and have no relation to individual performance. This adds to the feeling of uncertainty and lack of control.

The problems of precarity and uncertainty in agencies were captured in a 2019 Union Syndicale resolution[2]. The resolution called for the USF to ensure nomination of a special representative to support staff in agencies by, among other things, monitoring application of the staff regulations in agencies and developing a communication strategy with them. Some progress has been made. The six executive agencies, in 2019, recognised that to be attractive employers, agencies need to provide meaningful options for lifelong careers. They wrote to DG HR in the European Commission to establish the Executive Agencies working group.

The communication strategy in the resolution centres on strengthening USF representation in the agencies, and agency representation in the USF. Through a stronger agency voice in the USF, decisions that affect the jobs and careers of staff in the agencies can be brought closer to home.

[1] Special report 22/2020: Future of EU agencies – potential for more cooperation and flexibility. European Court of Auditors.

[2] Resolution concerning EU agencies USF 15th Congress 30 May -2 June 2019, Bratislava, Slovakia.

Steve Brainbridge


Analyste des politiques européennes d’enseignement et de formation professionnelles au Cedefop (Centre européen pour le développement de la formation professionnelle).