Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Permanent Temp Paradigm: Making Workers Expendable?

Erin Hatton reminds us that there is a growing employment trend in our country that is often noted but insufficiently discussed: temporary workers. She provides the beginnings of such a discussion in an article in the New York Times: The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy.

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.

"A quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050). Not only are many jobs low-wage, they are also temporary and insecure. Over the last three years, the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other, according to the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing temp recruitment agencies, outsourcing specialists and the like."

"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' Kelly Girl strategy was clever (and successful) because it exploited the era's cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace 'breadwinning' union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money. As a Kelly executive told The New York Times in 1958, ‘The typical Kelly Girl... doesn't want full-time work, but she's bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat’."

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.

"Protected by the era's gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labor unions. While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today 'temp' jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights."

The natural next step for the temp agencies was to sell the idea that temporary workers could be more cost effective than regular employees.

"Now eyeing a bigger prize - expansion beyond pink-collar work - temp industry leaders dropped their 'Kelly Girl' image and began to argue that all employees, not just secretaries, should be replaced by temps. And rather than simply selling temps, they sold a bigger product: a lean and mean approach to business that considered workers to be burdensome costs that should be minimized."

"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.

"....thousands of companies began to go the temping route, especially during the deep economic recessions of the 1970s. Temporary employment skyrocketed from 185,000 temps a day to over 400,000 in 1980 - the same number employed each year in 1963. Nor did the numbers slow when good times returned: even through the economic boom of the '90s, temporary employment grew rapidly, from less than 1 million workers a day to nearly 3 million by 2000."

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.

"After hitting a peak of nearly 2.7 million workers in 2006, the temporary help industry lost more than one-third of its members during the downturn. Since then, it has regained a vast majority of the workers it lost—87 percent—and continues to add them steadily. Compare that to all private employers, which have only brought back just over half of their jobs."

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.

"Erin Hatton, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is the author of ‘The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America’."

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.

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