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article imageThe American temp work takeover: Union benefits to permatemps

By Robert Lawson     Sep 30, 2015 in Business
The temp agency, or staffing firm, has seen a monumental increase in demand by companies looking to cut costs and increase efficiencies. The result has been permanent job displacement and uncertainty for many workers in the US economy.
Staffing agencies that employ temporary employees or contractors, also known as "temp agencies" (and the workers as "temps"), are a booming sector of the economy. In fact, they are among the fastest growing. You may have heard of some of the following staffing services, or even worked for one recently: Express Personnel, Manpower, Kelly Services or Ultimate Staffing. These companies are taking over the workforces of America, once a country with strong unions. Bill Maher noted that one in four Americans once had union jobs. That number dropped to one in ten. And those union jobs often had benefits. Temp jobs mostly do not, and the staffing agency takes a cut for helping fill the client's (the company that hired them to hire for them) rosters with affordable labor in a demanding global economic environment.
VICE News recently aired a documentary in partnership with Propublica to examine how the temp agencies work and what affect they are having on the lives of workers, particularly factory and warehouse workers (though staffing agencies find talent from all sorts of backgrounds and industries, even analytical, executive and creative). Many of the workers in Chicago they talked to in immigrant neighborhoods earned barely enough to get by and many held the same so-called temporary job for years. Many were also abused by another sub-industry of drivers who are paid to haul bodies to work on behalf of the staffing agencies.
President Obama recently praised Amazon for its growth and providing jobs, but this demand for fast shipping and logistics at low prices has created an effect of human commoditization in the economy. Amazon, Walmart, Kmart and a myriad of other companies are now hiring many, many temp workers that work full-time with no benefits and who are compensated poorly for their work. The New York Times has also ran editorials in its newspaper about the permanent temporary worker trend in the US. NBC and NPR have also recently, reported on this phenomenon taking place in the staffing industry.
Another problem for workers is accountability. Injuries were a major focus of the ProPublica coverage. Since there is a triangle relationship between worker, agency and client, it is often unclear who is responsible for the worker's safety, training and general welfare. NBC reported that economists have warned that this trend could do permanent damage to workers' retirement plans and other areas of their life, including career trajectory. Much of this stems from the fact that many workers are becoming what has been termed, the permanently temporary.
Temp workers and their agencies began with humble roots in post World War II America, making just hundreds of dollars per year employing mostly young white (European descendant) American women and girls to do what was called "women's work". This was mostly part-time labor for relatively unskilled work. The industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar machine, churning out human staff for some of the world's biggest companies and even small businesses.
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