Ben Gwin works for Google Shopping in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though he is technically a temporary worker at the tech giant, Gwin and 65 of his colleagues are now represented by the United Steelworkers union.
The group of workers ratified their first union contract in July after two years at the bargaining table with their contractor, HCL America Inc. The contract victory was historic in an industry that has aggressively opposed union drives, especially among temp and contracted employees.
Workers have characterized temp positions in the tech industry as a shadow, second-tier workforce who are drastically underpaid compared with direct employees doing the same or similar work and are often lured into the positions with the implication they could eventually be offered a permanent position directly with the company.
By seeking to unionize these positions, many of these workers are hoping to improve their circumstances.
“It’s a race to the bottom,” said Gwin. “That was one of the union-busting talking points. They claimed, ‘if you negotiate for better pay, someone else is going to come in and take this contract and pay less fees.’”
Gwin said he and his co-workers all work in various capacities for Google Shopping, alongside workers directly employed by Google in the company’s Pittsburgh office. Gwin describes a drawn-out unionizing campaign that included unfair labor practices filed by the union against the contractor, and retaliation by the contractor, which outsourced some of their jobs to Poland. But Gwin believes it was worth it. He co-authored a report published by the National Employment Law Project in August on how the biggest technology companies in the world have exploited workforces of temporary, vendor and contracted employees through a lack of job stability, lower pay and poor working conditions.
“This kind of system was created by tech companies so they essentially could have two workforces, divide workforces from each other, make worker solidarity harder to happen and extract as much labor as possible from the second-tier, temporary, contracted-out workforce while avoiding responsibility as an employer and pleading ignorance to the degraded work conditions their contracted workers face,” said Laura Padin, a co-author of the report and senior staff attorney with NELP.
Google has knowingly and illegally underpaid thousands of temporary workers in Europe and Asia for years. Hundreds of Google workers have signed a petition started by the Alphabet Workers Union in response to reports that the company illegally underpaid temporary workers. The petition demands that Google provides back pay to all temps and creates a path to permanent employment for these workers, ending the two-tiered temp system.
While the US does not have pay parity laws similar to those in Europe and Asia for contracted employees, legislation has been introduced in Congress to grant more rights to workers classified as independent contractors, employees with subcontractors, temporary agencies or franchises, and expand and extend labor organizing rights to more workers through the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (Pro Act).
Kevin Kiprovski worked as a contracted employee in the New York City area through 2018 and 2019, selling Google products to schools.
“I was doing a job where people who were sitting next to me were getting paid three to four times as much as me,” said Kiprovski. “The only reason I stayed there was because multiple Googlers came to me and said, ‘Oh, we just can’t wait to make you full-time.’”
He said contracted employees had different color badges and were often treated poorly by colleagues who were directly employed by Google, and that he was often mistaken by customers for a Google employee as he worked to bring in sales for Google, build the Google brand and sell Google products.
Kiprovski also cited an incident when he had to use his own car to travel for work to Vermont and accidentally hit a deer. Neither Google nor his contractor would cover the roughly $1,000 in repairs to his vehicle.
“I busted my ass for them,” Kiprovski said. “You have no protections. People treat you like garbage every day, no one cares about you, and then you’re just told that you’re worthless constantly.”
More than half of Google’s workforce around the world consists of temporary, vendor or contracted workers, a proportion that has steadily climbed since the company was founded. OnContracting, a staffing website, has estimated a technology company can save up to $100,000 annually by using a contractor rather than directly employing a worker. A 2016 study conducted by Silicon Valley Rising found the average annual wage for directly employed workers in the tech industry was $113,000, compared with $19,900 for contracted blue-collar tech industry workers and $53,200 for contracted white-collar tech workers.
Google has long promoted the working conditions of their employees as among the best in the world. For years, they were consistently ranked by Fortune as the number one employer to work for, citing perks such as free meals, free haircuts, gym membership discounts and generous paid leave policies.
But as Google and other tech companies have dropped in those rankings in recent years, the reality of these workplaces has been increasingly exposed by current, former and contracted employees.
“We have this illusion, and this is part of their business, these tech companies are so big and rich because of the advances in the products they’ve made, that’s where so much of that revenue comes from, but their profitability is still this old, rough approach to dividing the workforce and paying people as little as possible,” said Dave Desario, a co-author of the NELP report and the director of Temp Worker Justice. “Temp is really a misnomer. It’s not about temporary length of time, temp is an acronym: third-party employee with minimal pay. That’s what it’s about – outsourcing the job to someone that can make a lot less money.”
In a statement in response to reports of illegally underpaid temporary workers, Spyro Karetsos, chief compliance officer at Google said: “We’re doing a thorough review and we’re committed to identifying and addressing any pat discrepancies that the team has not already addressed. And we’ll be conducting a review of our compliance practises in this area. In short, we’re going to figure out what went wrong here, why it happened, and we’re going to make it right.”