The growing use of temporary or "contingent" workers in American industries like construction and warehousing has helped diminish corporate accountability and lead to unsafe working conditions, according to a new report released Friday.
By shifting responsibilities to outside firms, employers who rely on sub-contracted temp workers have fewer incentives to safeguard their workforce from injury and illness, putting those vulnerable workers in harm's way, scholars with the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning research non-profit, found.
"Their shared experience is one of little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions," the report said of such workers. "Employers of contingent labor may escape the financial incentives that are a main driver of business decisions to eliminate hazards for other workers."
The report cited four industries where corporations now use temporary workers on a permanent basis to help cut down on labor costs: farming, construction, warehousing and hotels. By getting workers through outside agencies, the corporation benefiting from the work doesn't have to worry about what kind of wages the workers are paid or what kind of benefits they receive.
Nor do those companies have to provide health care coverage or pay for workers compensation benefits, giving them less motivation to keep their farms, construction sites, warehouses or hotels safe. A large portion of the contingent workers in these industries tend to be Latino, the report notes.
"This is a phenomenon that's here to stay, and it's probably increasing," said Martha McCluskey, a professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and a co-author of the report. "It's not just a supplement [anymore]. Firms that engage in hazardous work now use contingent labor as a central part of their workforce on a regular basis. That changes the picture."
As HuffPost reported in 2011, the use of temp workers has become common in warehousing, an industry where workers traditionally were employed directly by the company producing or moving the goods. Now, companies including Walmart contract out much of their operations to logistics companies, which in turn hire labor companies to provide workers, often leading to a dizzying contract arrangement.
With the increased reliance on temps come lawsuits and labor citations alleging unsafe working conditions, as well as wage theft. Numerous temporary warehouse workers have told HuffPost over the past year and a half that they've been cheated out of pay even as they work for minimum wage, and that they toil in hot warehouses under strenuous productivity guidelines. One worker employed in an Illinois warehouse moving Walmart goods said she ultimately suffered a bladder infection because she didn't get enough bathroom breaks.
HuffPost also reported on similar contracting arrangements in the hotel industry that lead to lower pay and perhaps greater occupational hazards. As hotels such as Hyatt outsource housekeeping duties to outside labor firms, the lines of corporate accountability can become blurred, with some workers even unsure who to report injuries to.
"The indirect nature of the employment relationship inherently creates some special health and safety risks," McCluskey said. "Because workers by definition are working for an agency that's not designing and doing the work, number one, it can cause a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over how to allocate responsibility for the education of workers and for protective equipment."
The prevalence of contingent workers today calls for changes to decades-old occupational health laws, according to the report. The authors recommend that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is overseen by the Labor Department, establish rules requiring that companies using temps provide a minimum amount of training to workers, and that the agency should carry out enforcement sweeps of workplaces where temps are employed.
Because the workers are employed on a day-to-day basis, many of them probably don't report injuries or illness for fear they won't have a job the following week, McCluskey noted.
"The firm controlling the work is not invested in the particular workers," McCluskey said. "It just creates a whole new set of questions and risks."