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Feb
2014
26

REPORT: U.S. Ranks 41st of 43 Developed Nations in Temp Worker Protections

ProPublica Temp Worker Abuse Chart940

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According to data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States has some of the weakest labor protections for temporary workers in the developed world.  This growing portion of the American workforce does not enjoy the same protections as workers hired directly by the company they work for, if the company directly hires workers at all.  

What is worse, given the United States’ “no limit” policy on how long a worker can be labeled as temporary, the trend is likely to grow as large companies such as Walmart seek a never-ending supply of easily exploitable, low-wage workers.  

The recession has exacerbated this unfortunate scenario.  The OECD places the United States 41st out of 43 developed and emerging countries in terms of temporary worker protections, according to ProPublica:

Since the 2007-09 recession, temp work has been one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. But a ProPublica investigation into this burgeoning industry over the past year has documented an array of problems. Temps have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years, never getting hired on full-time. Companies have assigned temps to the most dangerous jobs. In several states, data showed that temps are three times more likely than regular workers to suffer amputations on the job. And even some of the country’s largest companies have relied on immigrant labor brokers and fly-by-night temp agencies that have cheated workers out of their wages.

In contrast, countries around the globe have responded to similar abuses by adopting laws to protect the growing number of temps in their workforces. These include limiting the length of temp assignments, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and restricting companies from hiring temps for hazardous tasks.

“The lack of basic protections for temporary workers in this country is shameful,” Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said in a statement. “It is important that the U.S. examine some of these provisions and consider whether they can serve as models for statutes to help protect American workers.”

The international community’s views on temporary workers make the American business philosophy look draconian by comparison. Regulation of the industry would surely be deemed anti-free market, despite this shining examples of the failures of unfettered capitalism.  

“There’s a very strong strain of economic thought in the United States,” former Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris told Propublica, “that one of the reasons why we are as productive and successful economically as we are is that there’s so much flexibility in the labor markets.”

But that view is not necessarily accurate, he said. Economies certainly suffer when companies can’t get rid of employees who aren’t productive, but they also suffer when employers don’t invest in training or pay living wages.

“There’s a need to find a balance,” Harris said. One of the “tragedies of the temp workers’ situation” is that it treats “workers as disposable inputs rather than valuable assets for their companies,” he said.

Touching on a story we highlighted in February of 2013, ProPublica explains how Day Davis, a temporary worker, died on the first day of his job because he had not been trained.  Davis’ story shows the dangers of misclassifying employees: A lack of training for temps can be deadly.

Day Davis, 21, was sent by his temp agency to work at a Bacardi bottling factory in Jacksonville, Fla., in August 2012. He didn’t make it to his first break on his first day. As a conveyor belt jammed and bottles of rum crashed to the floor, Davis was sent to sweep glass from under a giant machine that stacked cases onto pallets. His coworkers didn’t realize he was still under the machine when they turned it back on. He was crushed to death.

U.S. safety investigators found that Bacardi didn’t train temps because it didn’t think of them as their employees. Bacardi is “production, product and profits oriented,” one investigator wrote. “They do not want to slow down production and spend funds on temporary employees who may not be in their facility day-to-day.”

Temp injuries aren’t rare. Nor is it rare for companies to do little to train them. In December, ProPublica reported that temps in several of the largest states face a significantly greater risk of injury than regular workers, especially in blue-collar jobs. Temp workers nationwide have been repeatedly pulled into machines they didn’t know how to use or killed by fumes while cleaning the inside of chemical tanks.

In the end, the laws that could be passed to protect temporary workers are only strong as cross-industry dedication to abiding by them.  From rural warehouses to metropolitan seaports, temporary worker mistreatment is a serious issue.  The remedy is more of a shift in philosophy than a tweak in policy, and America businesses thus far seem unable, or unwilling, to reconsider their views on the subject.

Peruse this ProPublica long read in its entirety.

Compare worker protections around the world using their interactive graphic.

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