Hatton is concerned that the marketing by the agencies that provide temporary workers has been successful at convincing employers that their needs can be met by legions of temporary workers who can be "rented" and used for whatever period is needed and released as convenient.
"Low-wage, temporary jobs have become so widespread that they threaten to become the norm. But for some reason this isn't causing a scandal. At least in the business press, we are more likely to hear plaudits for 'lean and mean' companies than angst about the changing nature of work for ordinary Americans."
Hatton provides an interesting description of the growth of the temporary worker industry. It began in the early postwar years with an emphasis on placing women in temporary positions. From Hatton’s perspective this was a clever means of placing employees without having to worry about union objections or meeting wage and benefits standards that were in place.
The temp agencies succeeded in imprinting the notion that temporary work was a valid component of the economy. In so doing, they thus created a subclass of workers who could be treated differently from other employees.
The natural next step for the temp agencies was to sell the idea that temporary workers could be more cost effective than regular employees.
"According to the temp industry, workers were just another capital investment; only the product of the labor had any value. The workers themselves were expendable."
The potential advantages to companies are obvious: minimal training, little or no overhead, and immediate hiring and termination as necessary. A number of employers have apparently found that this model meets their needs.
Hatton claims that low wage temporary workers "threaten to become the norm." The 3 million temporary workers in 2000 would be less than 3% of the working population. Does that signify a significant threat to the norm? She suggests that the temp industry is growing faster than any other, but what exactly does that mean?
Danielle Kurtzleben provides a bit more perspective on the recent developments in the temp industry in an article in U.S. News Weekly.
The suggestion by Hatton that industry might be embracing the temporary worker paradigm is not supported by this data. Even in the worst of economic times temporary workers suffered more severe cutbacks than the general workforce. That is not necessarily the expected response by businesses. The fact that temporary jobs are coming back faster as the economy recovers is a testament to the ease of hiring temps, but it does not yet indicate a wholesale conversion to this class of worker.
There are areas in the workforce and in the economy where temporary work is a desirable component. Some people do, in fact, wish to work part-time. Many industries have seasonal worker requirements and hiring temporary workers is unavoidable. Temporary workers can fill in for employees who are on vacation, or maternity leave, or in any number of other circumstances. On the other hand, there are certainly those who wish to work full time in a job with decent pay and benefits but are consigned to a netherworld of uncertain prospects and unmet expectations because employers choose to satisfy long-term needs with a cheap short-term solution.
Hatton’s warning would be more compelling if she had provided data that indicated how temporary workers are actually being used—or abused—by businesses. Perhaps the information is available in her book.
Even if the number of workers who are unwillingly trapped in low-wage temporary jobs is a small fraction of the workforce, that is no reason to ignore them. Hatton’s article indicates that it is the option of business to create these job categories, but that is not strictly true. Society makes the rules that businesses must live by. If society decides that a class of workers is being abused, society can and should change the rules to prevent that.
If there is a fault here, it is not with our companies, but with our society.