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Temporary Work in A Precariat Nation

Updated on September 17, 2015
Temp worker waiting for the daily van in the early morning hours.
Temp worker waiting for the daily van in the early morning hours.

The U.S. Labor Department has been collecting numbers on temporary labor since 1968. For years, temporary labor meant office work (Kelly Girls) or day laborers in cities with large immigrant populations working construction. Today, “The work of temping has changed vastly…42 percent of temporary workers labor in light industry or warehouses.” The top temp jobs today are all low-wage, industrial jobs: packing, production, assembly and fabrication.

Temporary labor has always been a part of our work force. Recently, many businesses are adding more temp workers than permanent labor, “More than five years into a recovery marked by halting growth, many businesses are still adding temp jobs rather than permanent ones…This is a reflection of business uncertainty, that businesses need to be more responsive, and part of that is keeping their work force flexible,” said Steven Berchem, the chief operating officer of the American Staffing Association…”

Labor Ready: The nations largest industrial staffing provider.
Labor Ready: The nations largest industrial staffing provider.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reports that “median pay for temps is about $3.40 an hour less than for the typical private-sector worker.” They also tell us that temps have a much higher incidence of on the job accidents and miss on average “40 days compared with 27 days for regular workers” due to injury.” (Temped-Out)

Temp work reduces costs of labor to corporations because these workers get no benefits, get inadequate compensation, and are used ‘on demand’. Companies such as Walmart and Amazon can use hiring agencies and thus, they will seldom be over-staffed from one day to another. If there is a lull in sales, they contract for fewer workers. And it’s not just well known companies using temps.

About “Seventy-seven percent of Fortune 500 firms now use third-party logistics firms, who may then contract out to an army of smaller firms to move their goods.” (ibid) They hire the more vulnerable workers among the poor, immigrants, Latinos and African Americans. Each group represent about 20% of the workforce and 40% are former welfare recipients (ibid). Many of these workers live in poverty and receive public assistance on top or their temp work because the wages are so low and they work too few hours.

There is also a trend at colleges and universities to hire adjunct faculty and temporary workers, and it has “created a noticeable income gap among faculty members…Universities and colleges are now hiring “part-time positions limited to a single course for a single academic term and full-time fix-term positions, most often for one to three years of employment, that do not lead to consideration for tenure,” says John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the association and co-author of the report.”

Temporary work only increases the already severe inequality in our nation, “Building a cadre of “temped out” blue-collar jobs can have severe effects on workers, threatening a further rise in inequality and more shrinking of the middle class…Employment services grew sharply over the 1990s, more than doubling as a share of all jobs by 2000 (Figure 1)...the American Staffing Association reports that more than 12 million people worked at a staffing agency in 2013.5.” (Temped-Out)

The Case for a Universal Basic Income can be found here.

The economic recovery that Obama touts has been built on temporary work, as “Temporary agencies have emerged as the growth industry of the Obama administration…(they) have jumped 50 percent since the end of the recession.” Over the years, 17 million current workers have worked in temporary jobs, about 12% of the population, “The trend toward contract workers was intensified by the depth of the recession and the tepid pace of the recovery. A heavy investment in long-term employment isn't a cost all companies want to bear anymore. Obama supporters who argue that the economy has dramatically improved under his presidency are ignoring part of the story, the labor picture.

The highest job growth is in the temp sector.
The highest job growth is in the temp sector.

New Jersey, Chicago, and California (the Stockton area being the major hub) are central points for shipping goods around the nation. The “Offices for these temp firms are set up in largely Latino and immigrant areas to take advantage of migrant workers positions.”

The Chicago area is home to many of the largest manufacturers of food products, beverages, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Many of the warehouses are located near O’Hare International Airport, “where more than 3,600 manufacturing companies, employing approximately 100,000 workers, are located in the five-square-mile, Elk Grove Business Park, the largest industrial park in North America.” More than 700 staffing agencies serve the area. (Temped-Out) In fact, “More than $1 trillion worth of goods moves through the area on an annual basis.48” Around O'Hare, temporary workers make up around 63% of the warehouse employees.

There are no guarantees for work, and in temporary labor towns it’s even worse, “In temp towns, it is not uncommon to find warehouses with virtually no employees of their own. Many temp workers say they have worked in the same factory day in and day out for years. José Miguel Rojo, for example, packed frozen pizzas for a Walmart supplier every day for eight years as a temp until he was injured last summer and lost his job. (Walmart said Rojo wasn’t its employee and that it wants its suppliers to treat their workers well.)”” By hiring through staffing agencies, mega-corporations skirt responsibility for worker safety, well being and ignore other labor laws.

The workers get picked up in vans and taken to warehouses; a van trip cost upwards of $7, “A survey of 319 warehouse workers in Will County, Illinois, from more than 150 different warehouses, found that temp workers are dramatically worse off than direct hires performing the same work: temps earned an average of $9 per hour, $3.48 less than direct hires; only 5 percent of them had paid sick leave, compared to 48 percent of direct hires; and only 4 percent had health insurance, compared to 80 percent of direct hires. Sixty-two percent of the workers fell below the federal poverty line.”

There are also much higher rates of poverty with temp workers, and there are hundreds of examples of wage theft: companies not paying overtime or other hours worked. Temp workers in many states aren't allowed to negotiate wages and conditions despite federal laws that guarantee the right to do so.

Despite the propaganda, capitalism does not raise every boat. Capitalism exploits labor to maximize profit. Wages, health and safety standards, benefits, health care and the general welfare of workers does not matter to employers who use temporary labor. In these environments, labor is unable to organize and unionize; workers at different sights that move each day from one warehouse to another do not develop the relationships necessary to form friendships, let alone unionize. And these companies, through staffing agencies, target vulnerable populations that fear speaking out and can’t afford to refuse work.

Staffing agencies need to be regulated to reduce safety hazards, wage discrepancies, labor abuses, and wage theft. If the industry refuses to give workers their rights, temporary work should be phased out in the United States.

Tex Shelters

Temp warehouse work
Temp warehouse work


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