A question of time

The Working Time Directive, introduced in the UK last October, caught the market research industry unawares. Although the directive was passed by the European Union in 1993, it was only after many years of prevarication by the previous government and acceptance by the present one that it was finally introduced in Britain, and for many companies it seemed like a nightmare come true.

Field Management managing director Sue Ashe recalls: “I remember sitting in our lawyer’s office and wondering how we would ever organise the problem. The sheer administrative horror of it made it seem impossible.”

In the event, for most companies it has proved less complex than initially feared. The directive covers a range of conditions including a maximum 48-hour week and compulsory rest breaks. However, it was the requirement concerning paid annual leave which most affected the market research industry, both because of the way field interviewers are employed and the way the directive was introduced into the UK.

Normally, new acts are created or current acts amended to assist in the compliance with EU directives. In the case of the Working Time Directive, however, Peter Mandelson, then Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, decided that existing legislation was able to cope with the new rules and that the detail of the regulations could be implemented using the governmental tool of statutory instruments, which are written by civil servants and introduced without the need for parliamentary scrutiny. One of the reasons why the directive was introduced in this way was so that the directive regulations could quickly become law.

John O’Brien, chairman of the market research company BMRB, and chairman of the British Market Research Association’s (BMRA) working party on the Working Time Directive, explains that the use of the statutory instrument also resulted in the regulations being difficult to interpret.

He comments: “Instead of considering the words of the European directive and translating them into an English equivalent, the European requirements were introduced into English law in their original form.”

For example, the directive uses the word “workers” to describe who is affected, and it was therefore unclear whether field researchers – who are effectively freelance but are not defined as self-employed as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned – were included in that category.

What made the situation worse was that many companies, including the BMRA (according to O’Brien), were slow off the mark to respond, and as a result there was no co-ordinated industry-wide input to the directive. This was the catalyst that got O’Brien involved.

“I happened to be the person who wrote a fairly stinging letter to the BMRA recommending what needed to be done. The association took up my suggestions and asked me to go ahead and form a working party © to resolve the issues. So I got involved partly out of a sense of frustration,” he explains.

O’Brien’s working party issued its guidance in November last year. The BMRA then began running seminars to help employers understand the new requirements.

Having consulted with lawyers, the working party concluded that market research interviewers are entitled to paid annual leave once they have been on an agency’s books for 13 weeks (although they need not have worked or accepted work for all of that time). The working party also advised that appropriate schemes needed to be in place by January 1 1999, and warned BMRA members that it is a criminal offence for employers (and specifically company directors) to fail to comply with the Working Time Directive regulations.

On a more positive note, the BMRA advised its members “to use these regulations in a positive way to improve benefit packages offered to interviewers, increase the attractiveness of the job and improve the bond between agency and interviewer.”

Field interviewers take work when they like and can work for several different organisations at one time, so there are no problems regarding the number of hours they can work or take as holiday, provided they don’t work for one organisation for more than the 49 weeks a year currently allowed by the directive. The problem facing the BMRA working party was to find a formula to calculate the interviewers’ pro rata holiday pay.

The BMRA decided that the best way would be to work out entitlement based on calculating 3/49ths of the fees earned by the interviewers, averaged over a statutory 12-week period (the fraction represents the number of weeks holiday they are entitled to, divided by the number of weeks left in the year available to work). From November 23 the leave rises to four weeks, so the fraction will become 4/48ths.

Considering the complexity of the working arrangements of field researchers, many companies were pleased with this relatively simple formula, as well as being reassured that a consistent voice was helping the industry deal with the directive’s demands.

Pat Dowding, a Pegram Walters founding partner, says: “The BMRA did a very good job because it took a strong lead. I went to one of its conferences and it was apparent how thoroughly all the legal issues had been thought through.”

Many market research companies report that when it came to actually implementing the formula, the whole exercise was not as fearsome as they had expected. According to industry gossip some companies had a “horrendous” time, though none stepped forward to admit as much. However, what is striking is the number of companies that welcomed the legislation as an aid to improving the professionalism of the industry.

Pegram Walters’ Dowding is a member of the Market Research Society’s Respondent Interview Interface Committee (RII) – the body responsible for individual market research professionals. She welcomes the Working Time Directive: “We are looking at how to improve the status and professionalism of interviewers, and from that point of view I feel [the directive] is a good thing.”

Market research interviewing has traditionally been done by housewives as a way of earning extra money while being flexible enough to fit around the responsibilities of home and children. However, over the last 20 years the number of men employed has increased significantly, and many more people are using it as their main source of income. Consequently, fewer interviewers are now doing more work.

It is not just members of the RII committee who are in favour of improving working conditions for interviewers. NOP operations manager Clive Gibbins also welcomes the move: “There’s been a positive effect on our workforce as a result of the new working time © requirements. It has allowed us to increase the benefits we give our staff and the directive has given us a level playing field to do that. Any benefit of this nature automatically helps improve the quality of the workforce we are able to recruit.”

But the directive has added to the costs of market research. The BMRA estimates that by next year, when the full four weeks holiday entitlement has come through, the directive will have added 8.3 per cent to interviewer fees. It estimates that this will translate into a three to five per cent increase in costs, assuming that interviewer fees account for between one-third and a half of total research costs.

So far the industry has had mixed success in passing this on to clients, though generally clients are reported to have been sympathetic. But it does mean that clients are able to afford less market research out of the same budget. BMRA’s O’Brien also warns that, although he is in favour of increased benefits for interviewers, there are some dangers associated with the trend towards professional interviewers.

He says: “I can see the logic of a more professional field force, but when I look at the reality of our business I don’t see how it can work. For example, this week I’ll need perhaps 1,000 interviewers, next week I’ll need only 400. You can’t be that flexible in the way you deliver to your clients if you have to maintain a full-time field force.”

So while, on the one hand, there are many factors driving the industry to a more professional relationship with its workers, reality may limit the extent to which that is able to happen. But as flexibility becomes an increasingly important part of all business relationships in the coming century, it may be that the industry will find new ways of working and new relationships which make such dilemmas a thing of the past.

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