Debra Allonby was a technology lecturer employed by Accrington and Rossendale College in 1996. In May 1996 she, along with 340 others, was made redundant. She was then re-engaged via the agency, Education Lecturing Services. The change in her status meant that she lost her rights to sick pay, and her access to the lecturers' pension scheme, as well as other benefits.
Now the Appeal Court has ruled that she was entitled to claim benefits from the college, equal to those given to a directly-employed worker doing the same job.
NATFHE, the lecturers' union, says the decision could prove to be the beginning of the end for agencies supplying permanent members of staff. Many colleges use agencies because the staff are cheaper, as the extra benefits are not paid.
Some 230 of the dismissed staff were women. The court ordered a claim for sex discrimination back to an employment tribunal as it had not applied a proper test in considering the numbers of men and women cocerned.
The court also referred to the European Court of Justice the question of whether a female agency worker, who received less pay than a directly-employed worker doing the same job in the same service, was entitled to equal treatment. European law will also decide if excluding workers from the pension scheme was lawful.
Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, said: "The days of colleges using agency workers as a cheap alternative to providing employment rights are numbered."
The Equal Opportunities Commission welcomed the decision.
Richard Eve, executive director of ELS, said NATFHE's claim of a victory was hard to square with the facts. Further legal processes would take at least two more years to complete.
He added: "The Government is inextricably linked to this decision and it too needs to determine its response to NATFHE's claim of victory. Any decision in Europe to support Ms Allonby's claim will have implications for every business, including agencies, across every state in the European Union. This is not just a matter concerning UK further education."