Shadow Labor: Memories of the American Temp Industry
Journalist Michael Grabell published a great piece in ProPublica yesterday called “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed”, about the ever-expanding role of temp agencies as prominent players in the unskilled labor force. Laden with powerful testimonies of people young and old who struggle to maintain a sense of dignity and hope in the face of so many forbidding labor industry obstacles, the article struck a real chord with me.
I pulled my ass into Labor Ready well before dawn on countless occasions in my early twenties, as my then-girlfriend and I struggled to make ends meet in our tiny apartment. As a young punk rocker used to throwing his middle fingers up everywhere he went, getting a job, let alone keeping one, was hard. It was incredibly humbling for me to sit around in the pre-dawn hours with all of the immigrants, drunks, tweakers, homeless people, and various other dispossessed types, sipping cheap coffee with a mixture of eagerness and dread while waiting for a call that half the time never even came. There’s a pecking order at places like this, and it has little to do with what time you managed to show up. Guys like me got shoved to the back of the line until I’d been around long enough to learn to swallow my youthful entitlement and head there of my own volition.
The desperation for even a few bucks was stretched taut and thin in a lot of these guys, and sometimes fights would break out if some dude thought he got a raw deal on the work lottery. The disproportionately Latino ranks of laborers were dealt with pretty savagely by sleepy white cops who didn’t give half a damn about justice so much as about being bothered as they tried to sleep off the last few hours of their third shifts.
Those days when my name did get called often entailed loading trucks at warehouses, or packing crates for transport: fast-paced , backbreaking labor often lasting for ten to twelve hours a day with little respite. Recognition for any effort usually went to the guy who could still manage to crack a smile by day’s end, but when everything hurts up to and including your face, validation was almost never forthcoming to anyone.
When the day’s work would finally end, we would shuffle our way back to the Labor Ready office, grateful for whatever pittance they deemed fit give us based upon our efforts. We usually weren’t told how much we would be making prior to being sent out to a job, and it was only the guys who were lucky enough to land “regular” gigs that had any idea of what kind of money they could expect to make. A lot of guys couldn’t make it back to the office before they closed, which meant that, after putting in all that effort, they literally had nothing to show for it. A lot of guys went hungry on those days. I was one of those guys more than once.
As time went by, I was able to score manufacturing gigs through temp agencies like Apple One and Manpower, while those gigs still existed in Silicon Valley. It was a step up, but not much of one. Instead of packing trucks, I was now assembling printers or servo motors for the same pay. So while it wasn’t breaking my back, it was still breaking my spirit. The work was dangerous in other ways, too: hand and eye injuries were not that uncommon on many of the lines I worked, as the merciless production quotas that we struggled under forced many workers to throw caution to the wind.
Once in a while, if I was really lucky and especially contrite, I’d land the occasional filing clerk, telemarketing, or admin gig, and while those didn’t really pay any better, at least I didn’t have to worry about losing a finger. But they never lasted long, especially as someone who could barely afford professional attire beyond a couple of yellowed Oxford shirts and ratted clip-on ties from Goodwill. The politics of office environments demand that you look the part, and the “shabby chic” that young hipster office types seem to get away with these days was flatly unacceptable a decade ago. Neither was my seeming inability to swallow my pride for extended periods of time, when operating under a near-complete vacuum of recognition, let alone acknowledgement of your existence. There’s an in-group/out-group mentality that exists in corporate America between temps and full-time employees, where temps are treated with contempt as second-class citizens, both on and off the books. The glass ceiling is as thick as it is low, and you hammer on it at your own peril.
These years are behind me now, but not all that far. There’s not much that separates me from where I’ve been and where I am, other than a desperate desire to not go back because of what I know awaits. The temp industry model has snaked its way into many “white collar” jobs here in Silicon Valley; engineers, software developers, IT, sales, administrative professionals, and countless others are now staffed through temp agencies, competing with an ever-increasing influx of foreign workers on temporary visas from places like China and India for the same positions and the same undercut wages. Meanwhile, companies like Cisco, Sun, Google, Facebook and Apple just kick back and rake in the dough, while American taxpayers pick up the bill.
At the same time, companies like WalMart, Target, and Amazon are laughing all the way to the bank through continued exploitation of the ever-increasing unskilled labor pool, guys like me in my early twenties with no chances and little to lose. Layers and layers of red tape effectively insulate these corporations from the consequences of their actions both here and abroad, allowing them to claim ignorance of the problem while touting lowered unemployment numbers as proof that the labor problem is improving because of their decision to work with temp agencies.
The Labor Ready office where I used to trade my dignity for table scraps is gone now; only an empty storefront remains, boarded up along with any semblance of hope for those that used and were used by it. There is no real unskilled labor industry in the Bay Area anymore. Where these people have gone or what they have done to survive is anyone’s guess. Their absence is more painful than their presence ever was, because, no matter how bad up things get, even chump change is better than none.
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