Purpose - The notion of worker vulnerability is often seen as synonymous with disadvantage in discussions of nonstandard work. The purpose of this paper is to separate and examine these two notions by considering economic, social and psychological perspectives and exploring the reality as experienced by agency workers. Design/methodology/approach - In total, 178 Australian clerical agency workers employed by eight agencies completed a mail questionnaire. Personalised responses were subjected to computer-assisted template analysis. Findings - Sample characteristics revealed a gendered and heterogeneous workforce. Findings showed evidence of economic, psychological and social vulnerabilities although favourable features were also reported. This apparent contradiction suggests linkages between the features of nonstandard work, worker preferences, individual characteristics and the experience of worker vulnerability. Research limitations/implications - The notion of varying degrees of worker vulnerability offers a new lens to investigate agency work. The relatively small sample size, focus on clerical work and features of the Australian context may limit generalisability. Practical implications - Findings demonstrate the nature and extent of agency worker vulnerability which allows us to offer policy interventions for governments, agencies and user organisations and insights for prospective agency workers. Originality/value - The widespread use of agency workers provides an imperative for frameworks to assess the nuances of the agency work experience. This study presents the reality of agency work as experienced by the workers and reveals the good and bad aspects of agency work.