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How the Temp Workers Who Keep Huge Corporations Running Are Getting Crushed

Workers wait on corners and in alleys for rickety vans to whisk them off to warehouses miles away—in the US.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/iluistrator

 

It’s 4:18 a.m. and the strip mall is deserted. But tucked in back, next to a closed-down video store, an employment agency is already filling up. Rosa Ramirez walks in, as she has done nearly every morning for the past six months. She signs in and sits down in one of the 100 or so blue plastic chairs that fill the office. Over the next three hours, dispatchers will bark out the names of who will work today. Rosa waits, wondering if she will make her rent.

In cities all across the country, workers stand on street corners, line up in alleys or wait in a neon-lit beauty salon for rickety vans to whisk them off to warehouses miles away. Some vans are so packed that to get to work, people must squat on milk crates, sit on the laps of passengers they do not know or sometimes lie on the floor, the other workers’ feet on top of them.

This is not Mexico. It is not Guatemala or Honduras. This is Chicago, New Jersey, Boston.

The people here are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies – Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.

Many get by on minimum wage, renting rooms in rundown houses, eating dinners of beans and potatoes, and surviving on food banks and taxpayer-funded health care. They almost never get benefits and have little opportunity for advancement.

Across America, temporary work has become a mainstay of the economy, leading to the proliferation of what researchers have begun to call “temp towns.” They are often dense Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they are cities where it has become nearly impossible even for whites and African-Americans with vocational training to find factory and warehouse work without first being directed to a temp firm.

In June, the Labor Department  reported that the nation had more temp workers than ever before: 2.7 million. Overall, almost one-fifth of the total job growth since the recession ended in mid-2009 has been in the temp sector, federal data shows. But according to the  American Staffing Association, the temp industry’s trade group, the pool is even larger: Every year, a tenth of all U.S. workers finds a job at a staffing agency.

The proportion of temp workers in the labor force reached its peak in early 2000 before the 2001 slump and then the Great Recession. But as the economy continues its slow, uneven recovery, temp work is roaring back 10 times faster than private-sector employment as a whole – a pace “exceeding even the dramatic run-up of the early 1990s,”  according to the staffing association.

The overwhelming majority of that growth has come in blue-collar work in factories and warehouses, as the temp industry sheds the Kelly Girl image of the past. Last year, more than one in every 20 blue-collar workers was a temp.

Several temp agencies, such as Adecco and Manpower, are now among the largest employers in the United States.  One list put Kelly Services as second only to Walmart.

“We’re seeing just more and more industries using business models that attempt to change the employment relationship or obscure the employment relationship,” said Mary Beth Maxwell, a top official in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. “While it’s certainly not a new phenomenon, it’s rapidly escalating. In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s just a big shift to this for a lot more workers – which makes them a lot more vulnerable.”