At Taylor Farms in Tracy, California, one of the country’s major salad producers, Susie Serna works in quality control, making sure food production standards are upheld. But lately, it’s the quality of the jobs she’s been worried about. In her department, she sees temporary workers constantly milling through, facing safety risks at work and constantly at risk of losing their jobs altogether.
“They don’t get the proper training,” she says, recalling how she spotted one temp worker wearing tennis shoes instead of the requisite boots. “It’s like, ‘Do this, do that.’ No communication whatsoever.’”
Because temps are “cheaper,” she says, management regularly bring on workers hired through a temporary staffing agency to do the same job as regular workers like her, but at lower pay rates. Often, the temps get “only a certain amount of training…because they know they’re gonna let them go.” When she’s campaigned to organize the work site with the Teamsters, she says that temp workers face consequences for showing interest in the union. “They’ll let them go, but they’ll bring somebody [who] will stay with the company,” she observes. “That person will have a negative attitude and follow the rules of what the crew leader’s doing.”
The workers at some of the most abusive companies in the country are not actually employees, and their bosses aren’t technically the ones who pay their wages. In the twenty-first-century workplace, the activity formerly known as work is now a tangle of subcontracts, temp jobs, 1099s and freelance gigs, allowing companies to atomize their workers across many firms in a diffuse production chain. At the same time, firms limit their responsibilities to pay fair wages or respect workers’ rights. Many workers, in turn, are multilaterally disempowered—alienated from the worksite’s firm at the top of the chain, detached from the staffing agency in the middle, and unprotected by the government or unions.
A recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) shows these outsourced or “contingent” labor structures have become “one of the central factors driving down wages and working conditions in the post-recession economy.”
(All graphics courtesy: NELP, “Who’s the Boss” Report [PDF])
While contracting makes sense when firms need short-term specialized services, such as catering or web design, in many low-wage industries—and even in the public sector—the outsourcing of a firm’s core job duties has become a strategy to efficiently circumvent labor, environmental and civil rights policies.
Thanks to legal loopholes and toothless oversight, NELP argues, outsourcing allows companies like Taylor Farms to “distance themselves from the labor-intensive parts of their businesses” by contracting out jobs that would otherwise be done by real employees. The company can slough off labor costs by contracting with a staffing agency or subcontractor, which in turn chops down pay scales, extends work schedules or downsizes the workforce to maximize profits for both firms.