Temp Workers and the New Economy
In recent years, and especially in the time since the beginning of the current economic recovery, temp work has been growing ten times faster than private sector employment as a whole. The percentage of workers employed through staffing agencies has been rising dramatically Often, it is extremely difficult for workers to find jobs without going through a temp firm. This is true even for factory or warehouse work in some areas. The most recent Labor Department report stated that 2.7 million workers held these types of jobs in June.
Hiring workers through temp staffing agencies enable many large corporations to lower labor costs significantly. The companies hiring the temps become insulated from workers’ compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the need to make sure their workers are citizens or legal immigrants. The workers themselves often are paid minimum wage or close to it, with few if any of the benefits enjoyed by permanent employees of the companies they are working for. They may not be sure on any given day that they will even have a job to go to.
Temp workers employed in this fashion are extremely vulnerable. Many can only get health care though government programs such as Medicaid, for example, which is another way in which the corporations using their labor save huge amounts of money in labor costs as opposed to employing full-time permanent employees in those positions. Forget about such luxuries as paid vacations, paid sick leave or 401K retirement plans. Many permanent positions have been gradually phased out in favor of getting the same work done by temporary employees, some of whom often end up doing the same work for less money and far fewer benefits because they are technically employed by the temp agency, not the large corporation that profits from the product of their labors.
The increase in employment of temporary workers has contributed to the increase in inequality between workers and corporate executives overall in our economy. As CEO pay has been skyrocketing during the recovery, wages for the average worker have stagnated to the point where the CEO-to-worker pay ratio has risen to 273 to 1. Long-term unemployment and underemployment, symptomatic of what appears to have become the new normal since the Great recession, add to the downward spiral of many into accepting part-time and/or temporary employment at lower wages and fewer benefits than they had received earlier, just to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the executives of the companies employing these tactics can point out to shareholders what good managers they are based on the profits they are making for the company, thus ensuring themselves hefty pay increases. This pattern is present in broad segments of the economy. Most of the people doing the bulk of the work that goes into making the products (often abroad), loading, shipping and unloading them, stocking the shelves, and even selling them as cashiers are either not employed directly by the larger company itself, or are employed as either temporary or part-time workers.
Walmart is a major company that uses such policies and practices, but they are far from alone. Almost every major retailer does likewise, as do many other product manufacturers of electronics and other consumer goods. Even public entities, educational institutions and correctional facilities have trended in this direction, as the push to produce more at lower cost seems to pervade more and more aspects of our lives and society as a whole. The work is unevenly distributed and the rewards are unequally divided. Economic justice often seems to have become a distant and unattainable fantasy for most.
If you are lucky enough to have a job, look around at your coworkers. How many have full-time jobs with full benefits? If you look around at other workplaces – grocery stores, department stores, retail stores, schools, restaurants, or wherever – see how many people there have those things. What percentage of workers at these places that you shop, learn, or eat at make a living wage, have good health coverage and other reasonable benefits. Ask how conditions have changed at those workplaces over the years. These days, reducing employee hours as a means of not paying for their health care has been a publicly stated policy to avoid the changes involved with the Affordable Care Act. Pensions and 401k plans have become either non-existent or entirely inadequate for most workers.
The trends are undeniable. More jobs have become part-time and/or temporary with fewer benefits than a few decades ago. Wages and salaries have not kept up with increases in productivity.The minimum wage has not even kept up with inflation. The difference can be seen in higher profits, the main beneficiaries being the stockholders and corporate executives. Public sector institutions have also participated in this downsizing and outsourcing as budgets are cut. The push to outsource jobs and contract out work to other companies, both locally and abroad, is constantly in play. Relieving corporations, or school districts or prisons, or even Congress, of their responsibility to ensure that everyone involved in their operation – no matter how peripherally – is treated fairly and well is unacceptable. But the obfuscation of this responsibility is passed around like a hot potato, ensuring that many are treated deplorably and nothing is done to fix the problem.
Treatment of workers in our society has taken a turn for the worse in recent decades. The time has come to reverse some of the more debilitating practices employed by the corporate and governmental powers that be to squeeze more and more out of people without adequately compensating them for their work. People deserve to have jobs that enable them to lead productive and fruitful lives, to have health care, education, housing, security in old age and nurturing in youth. Our corporations and the government they increasingly seem to own appear to disagree with this notion, or at least refuse to take any responsibility for ensuring that it happens. Our technology, knowledge and work ethic make us capable of producing everything we need for all to live well. That we do not is a travesty of justice that needs to be rectified so that the products of our toil are more equitably distributed to all rather than hoarded by a few.
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