ProPublica: Some Temporary Workers Are the New Serfs

Friday, 19 Jul 2013 02:23 PM

By John Morgan

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Temporary workers are a real-life version of "The Expendables," and are helping corporate giants make steep profits even as they are getting crushed by them, according to investigative journalism group ProPublica.org.

Temporary work has become a mainstay of the U.S. economy, leading to the spread of what researchers have begun to call “temp towns” in Latino neighborhoods and in areas where whites and African-Americans cannot find factory or warehouse work.

“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, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay,” ProPublica said.

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“They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.”

According to the U.S. Labor Department, the nation had 2.7 million temp workers in June, the highest number ever. The American Staffing Association estimated the figure is even higher, and accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. workers.

“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 Labor Department official. “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.”

ProPublica said many economists predict the growth of temp work will continue in part because of Obamacare, which some say will prompt employers to hire temps to avoid the health costs of covering full-time workers.

Adjusted for inflation, many temp workers today earn about the same amount of money as the exploited migrant farmworkers profiled in Edward R. Murrow’s famous 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame,” ProPublica said.

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Temp firms have successfully lobbied to change laws and regulations in 31 states so that workers who lose their assignments cannot get unemployment benefits unless they check back with the temp firm for another assignment, the journalism group reported.

Several temp agencies, including Adecco and Manpower, are now among the largest U.S. employers, and by one estimate Kelly Services is second only to Wal-Mart in its number of workers.

ProPublica reported a handful of bills protecting temp workers have been introduced in Congress over the past 20 years, but that none of them have made it out of committee.

Efforts on the state level met a similar fate, the group said.

An editorial in the Deseret News noted only 58.7 percent of the country's adult population is in the workforce, and less than half of Americans have full-time jobs.

“This so-called economic recovery is predicated on a significant shift from full-time to part-time and temporary work,” the editorial said.

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