Campaign on Contingent Work
Temp Workers Alliance
Contingent labor, sometimes euphemistically called “non-traditional” labor, has become a standard way of life for millions of Americans. Contingent employees include temps, industrial day laborers, and contract employees. In the past, contingent workers have tended to do administrative support in office settings, construction jobs, health care in nursing homes, and child care. However, since the economic recession of the 1970s, American corporations have aggressively “down-sized” their staffs of regular, full-time employees, and have increasingly relied on contingent labor. This means that many jobs that were formerly performed by full-time employees are now being filled by contingent laborers, either through temporary help agencies or contract systems.
Unlike regular employees, contingent workers usually receive no health care, no benefits, no paid vacations or sick leave, no chances for promotion, and no job security. At Microsoft, almost 50% of employees are misclassified as contingent workers. These are employees who have worked in their positions for years, but who are denied compensation and benefits they are entitled to and would receive if they were properly hired as full-time employees. For companies like Microsoft, utilizing contingent labor means avoiding accountability for labor abuses (because their workers are actually employed by the temp agencies that pay them) and increasing profits for the company and its executives by cutting the costs of health care and benefits.
As anyone who has worked through a temp agency knows, office temp and other contingent industries sell themselves on the flexibility and freedom temporary work supposedly provides. A closer look at the actual terms of contingent work, however, reveals that while companies benefit from contingent arrangements, employees largely suffer. A Department of Labor study found that 59% of temps would prefer a traditional, permanent arrangement. In sex work industries, many strippers who in the 1980s were hired as legal employees of the clubs at which they danced found themselves, in the 90s, “reclassified” as independent contractors. This means that dancers no longer receive a wage (only customer tips), get no benefits, and must pay a fee to perform. Finally, “perma-temps” who work for years at big companies as contingent employees commonly find that their requests to be hired into regular, full-time positions are systematically denied. At a meeting of the Temp Worker’s Alliance in Hackensack, NJ, I spoke with a man who worked as an engineer for six years at the same company, and was told throughout that entire period that there were no full-time positions open. At the end of his six years, he was fired legally without cause.
Not only does the growth of contingent industries legally undermine everything labor movements have fought for, it most heavily impacts already disenfranchised populations. Contingent work is disproportionately performed by the young or old, women, and people of color. For example, positions frequently made accessible to women, such as clerical and administrative support, are being converted to contingent jobs. Also, due to white flight and disintegrating urban infrastructures, over the past decades much industrial work moved out of city centers and into suburbs or edge cities. Poor African-American and Latino workers have been forced to rely on industrial temp agencies that charge for transportation to construction sites, take a cut of wages, and offer no benefits. Since contingent workers on average earn only 80% of what people performing the same work in regular positions earn, and since women and people of color already earn less than male and white workers, the reliance upon contingent labor increases the economic disparities of American capitalism.
A labor system that demands a contingent work force serves only corporations and their bank accounts. For most people, contingent work becomes viable only because the racism, sexism and class inequalities in schools, cities and occupational settings leave no other options open. For these workers, contingent employment means greater instability, more economic insecurity, and even less opportunities for meaningful, satisfying, life-sustaining work. The struggle against these labor abuses is a struggle not only for economic justice, but for racial and social justice as well.