Employment law

Can a limited company contractor be in scope of the Agency Workers Regulations?

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    In specific circumstances, limited company contractors working through a recruitment agency may be in scope of the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR).

    This means they have the right to ‘equal’ basic terms and conditions with any ‘comparable’ permanent employees at the end-clients company (where they actually work).

    In this article, we’ll look at limited company contractors offering their services to an end-client through a contract with a recruitment agency in more detail. This article doesn’t cover contractors providing services through an umbrella company.

    Our downloadable Agency Workers Regulations Guide goes over what the law says, helps you figure out if it applies to you, and gives advice on what you can do to enforce your rights.

    Regulations when you're an agency worker

    What the guidance tells us

    Up until now, the question of whether a limited company contractor can fall within the scope of the AWR hasn’t been well tested at Employment Tribunal.

    The only AWR cases to reach Tribunal that’ve been reported so far are related to the Swedish Derogation model (limiting equal pay), redundancy consultation and other pay issues that we covered in another article.

    The government’s original guidance on the AWR said that the definition of an ‘agency worker’ excludes:

    • Individuals who are in a ‘profession or business undertaking carried out by the individual’, where the hirer is a client or customer of the individual
    • Arrangements where the user has the status of a client or customer of the limited company or self-employed contractor.

    In other words, where a genuine business relationship exists, and the contractor isn’t under the direct supervision and control of the end-client, individuals are excluded from the AWR.

    Limited company contractors who are truly in business on their own account should be out of scope, although contractors aren’t automatically excluded just by virtue of working through a limited company.

    It’s generally felt that Personal Service Company contractors are likely to think twice about jeopardising their tax status by asserting agency worker rights.


    The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills guidance gives the example of an IT contractor who supplies his services through a limited company:

    “An individual has set up his own limited company through which he provides IT services. He has a contract with a TWA (Temporary Work Agency) and is supplied to work on a specific project with an anticipated duration of 12 months.

    “The individual has no fixed working pattern and can determine how and when he performs the services; he can also send a substitute to perform the services at any time, or payment is made on a specific, deliverable date, or on a fixed price and not simply on an hour, daily or weekly rate. However, he is subject to the hirer’s reasonable and lawful instructions.

    “Given the absence of personal service and mutuality of obligation, the company is a client or customer of the individual. Therefore, the individual is out of scope. This must be a true reflection of the reality of the relationships between the parties involved and not simply a reflection of the contractual terms.”

    Recruitment Agency clauses

    Since the AWR were introduced in October 2011, recruitment agencies have been inserting clauses into contractual agreements that are related to the AWR and strengthen a contractor’s case for being seen as in business on their own account.

    Such clauses include (not verbatim):

    • “The contractor warrants that it operates on a business-to-business basis”
    • “The contractor is operating a business undertaking”
    • “Services are performed by an independent consultant”
    • “The contractor is not directed or supervised by the client”
    • “The services are provided to [the agency] and the client as customers of the contractor’s business”
    • “The contractor shall indemnify [the agency] against any losses arising… from any claim that the contractor is entitled to rights according to the AWR”

    These clauses are designed also to give the agency and client comfort that the contractor isn’t subject to the AWR. However, if a contractor believes they are, they’d need to dispute their employment ‘status’ at an Employment Tribunal.

    The Employment Tribunal will consider if the description of the arrangement in the contract reflects the reality of the relationship.

    The focus will fall on the relationship which exists between the limited company, the end user client and/or the agency.

    The Tribunal will also have to weigh up whether they’re in business on their own account or not (and have a business-to-business with the end-client). There’ll no doubt be a debate about what exactly a ‘business undertaking’ is and what a ‘business-to-business’ relationship actually means.

    The courts have devised a number of tests which examine the individual’s circumstances and consider all aspects of the ‘employment’ relationship, including their conduct, what a contract does and doesn’t say, and the expectations of the parties involved, to establish the reality of the relationship.

    Employment Tribunal self-employed tests

    In assessing the (self-)employed status of an individual, an Employment Tribunal is likely to examine the following:

    • The express terms agreed between the parties in both the upper and lower contracts (the contracts between you and the agency and the agency and the client)
    • The degree of autonomy that the contractor has in determining how the work is undertaken
    • The degree of supervision, if any, that the end user client exercises over the contractor
    • Whether the contractor (or their accountant) prepares and submits his own accounts to HMRC
    • Whether the contractor is entitled to be paid during periods where no work is being carried out
    • The level and degree of financial risk which the contractor is exposed to under the contract(s) and the extent to which the contractor is able to increase his own profit
    • Whether there’s a contractual requirement for the contractor to provide services personally (although the fact that this requirement exists won’t in itself rule out that the hirer or agency are clients or customers of the contractor’s company)
    • Whether the contractor supplies tools, equipment, materials for the purpose of the assignment
    • Whether the individual is obliged to work exclusively for one client or whether they can, in fact, work for more than one client at a time
    • Whether the individual has fixed hours of work or whether they can choose when they work.

    If the contractual arrangements don’t reflect the reality of the relationship (e.g. despite the wording of a contract, the actual reality is that the individual isn’t in business on their own account, and they work under the supervision and direction of the hirer), individuals are likely to fall into scope of the regulations.

    Other important cases where tribunals have looked at ‘employment status’ and whether the contractual arrangements reflect the reality of the arrangement are worth further reading:

    So, in certain circumstances, it could be possible that a limited company contractor could be within the scope of the AWR.

    You’ll notice this article doesn’t mention IR35 - IR35 and the AWR are different pieces of legislation and being ‘inside’ of one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘inside’ the other. If you'd like to learn more about IR35, check out our comprehensive IR35 hub for more information, and to learn more about our IR35 service.

    IR35 - Get your guide here

    If you’re an employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues, talk to us at The HR Kiosk - a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses. You can retain us for as much time as you need.

    Please note that the advice given on this website and by our advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It also can’t be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.