Coemployers or contractors? How the tech industry washes its hands of the dirty parts of labour

The layers and complexities of labour abuse in Silicon Valley are dizzying, but one practice is finally starting to slowly make headlines: The use of contract labour. Many tech companies rely on third party contractors for things like janitorial services, cafeteria personnel, shuttle drivers, and much, much more. Support staff tend to be employed by a contractor outside the company, with the exception of administrative support staff like personal assistants.

Using contract labour offers a number of advantages for tech companies. The contracting company provides employees at a flat bid — the tech company pays a fee for these services and doesn’t have to deal with manage employee schedules, payroll, employment taxes, benefits (if any), union negotiations, and the like. This treats contract labour rather a lot like objects, rather than actual human beings. Tech companies justify the practice on the grounds that it saves them money and also allows them to focus on core product development, but it has other advantages for the industry too.

One of the reasons it’s cheaper is because of the extremely low bid price, which results in low wages for employees. By not employing contract staff directly, tech companies don’t have to provide them with the stated base wages they use for their own employees. They also don’t need to administer benefits and other perks that they claim to offer to all of their employees — for example, if a company promises comprehensive health care and advertises that fact as a PR gesture and recruitment attractant, the contract labour who clean the offices and serve food in the cafeteria don’t get that benefit.

Effectively, tech companies can wash their hands of responsibility, which is a rather neat trick. It’s also raising a lot of questions about where the line between contracting and coemployment lies. At what point is a tech company providing enough direction to contract labour — and exerting enough control over them — that it’s really a coemployer, not a contractor? These are important questions, because they have very real legal ramifications, not least in union organising, where a company may be required to participate in collective bargaining if it’s a coemployer.

The abuse of contract labour is widespread in the tech industry, and the people who are in the best position to do something about it are the regular employees within tech companies. Worker activists are already fighting ferociously for better treatment, but with solidarity from regular employees, they’d be in a much better position to gain traction. If regular employees — all those programmers, developers, customer service personnel, and other people who make up the directly hired personnel of a company — took up a principled stance on the behalf of contract labour, it would change the cultural landscape.

Companies can work quite hard to avoid paying attention to contract labourers, unions, and advocates, especially in an era when unions are being weakened and the political climate tends to favour tech companies in the belief that they are boosting the economy. They’re going to have a harder time coping with a revolt in their own ranks, especially if it’s coordinated and organised, which is the only truly effective way to manage a meaningful protest. What would the labour fight in Silicon Valley look like if regular employees were taking up signs alongside the contract labourers who make their offices run, joining in on pickets instead of crossing them, adding their weight to the unions pushing for better treatment of contract labour?

Direct employment results in very different treatment at companies large and small. Contracted labourers are pitched as a “service,” like they’re robots that pop in after hours to take care of things quietly during the night. The work they do isn’t recognised as work, even though a single day without them would be catastrophic for the companies that contract their services — a day without garbage collection on the Google campus would be a nightmare, a day without janitorial services at Apple headquarters would be horrific, a day without meals at the Facebook cafeteria would likely spawn a riot. These workers are part of the backbone of Silicon Valley, but they aren’t treated like it.

As we talk about the different labour structures Silicon Valley hath wrought, discussing issues like the gig economy and economic inequality, we need to be taking a look at how contract labour is used and abused. This isn’t a temp agency offering a fill-in secretary for a few weeks or months while someone is on maternity leave. This is a company providing long-term, full-time employees who labour in the tech industry without reaping any of its benefits. These disposable workers are making the new economy happen, but the new economy is happening without them.

Many tech companies like to present their socially progressive bona fides as evidence that they’re part of the movement forward, part of a better world, building the environment we should all want to live in. The benefits to their workers are touted as one such perk and their workers enjoy quite excellent treatment. But these bona fides don’t extend into the janitorial supply closets and the kitchens, and that’s not fair.

Image: Janitors fighting for justice, joel kabahit, Flickr