U.S. lags behind world in temp worker protections
‘Permatemping’ cases highlight lack of U.S. protections for temp workers. Other countries limit the length of temp jobs, guarantee equal pay and restrict dangerous work.
Other Countries Do More
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 many other countries, temp workers would never face such risks. At least 12 countries have banned companies from hiring temps in dangerous industries or to do hazardous work. In Argentina, South Korea and Japan, for example, temp workers are prohibited in the construction industry. In Poland, the restrictions are even more specific: Temp workers can’t be assigned to work at heights, in confined spaces such as tanks or containers, inside machines or with hazardous materials.
“The main reason was the protection of the workers,” said Agnieszka Zieli?ska, head of Polskie Forum HR, the Polish temp agency association. The country recently reviewed the policy, she said, but officials worried that lifting it could be dangerous because “most accidents that happen, happen with workers who are just starting.”
In the United States, companies often use temps in traditional ways such as supplementing their workforce during peak periods. But many others temp out entire segments of their core business, such as warehouse work or cleaning hotel rooms, so that they have to pay only the number of employees they need for a particular day. Other companies follow the “try before you buy” motto of the temp industry as a way of screening applicants who get hired on three months, six months or, sometimes, several years later if they excel.
Countries such as France and Bulgaria restrict temp assignments to temporary situations such as filling in for absent workers or when companies have sudden increases in work. Others, like South Africa, cap the number of temps companies can hire to 30 percent of their workforce.
Other countries also do more to monitor temp agencies. Unlike the United States, about three-quarters of the countries tracked by OECD require temp agencies to register or become licensed before they can begin sending out workers.
At least 20 large countries call for financial guarantees to protect workers’ wages if the company goes out of business. When a U.S. temp agency goes bankrupt, workers are often left unpaid and must seek their wages in court or from the company to which they were assigned.
Slovenia, a country the size of New Jersey that split from Yugoslavia in 1991, has perhaps the strictest licensing rules. It requires temp agency managers to have a college degree, at least two years of experience and to have passed a professional exam before the agency can be licensed.
“It’s because you have a lot of precarious agencies,” said Denis Stok of ZdruženjeAgencijzaZaposlovanje, the Slovenian temp agency association. “If there are any irregularities that were found, they would just close down a company and start somewhere else. That’s why they have made it more difficult to start a company.”
Such rules are a rarity in America, where every day, thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, are picked up on street corners by temp agency vans, whose drivers charge them exorbitant fees for the ride without telling them where they’re going to work.
In response to such abuses in recent years, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois passed laws requiring temp agencies to register with state authorities. The new laws also limit the fees agencies can charge. And in Illinois, Massachusetts and California, agencies must give workers notice of where they’re going to work and how much they’ll be paid.
Carlos Dubon worked as a temp for a recycling plant in New Bedford, Mass., for 11 years, never receiving a raise above the state’s minimum wage. When advocates began working on the temp worker right-to-know law, he pitched in to protest what he saw as unfair and unsafe conditions.
Now that the law has passed, Dubon said state and local authorities need to be vigilant or temp agencies will continue to abuse workers.
“The law is good if they follow it, but they are not following the law. They do whatever they want,” he said. “They are taking advantage of immigrants because they know we cannot ask for our rights.”
For Mikva, the former congressman who pushed federal legislation in the 1970s, protecting temp workers remains “one of the many causes that I left unsatisfied.”
“I still think it’s terrible and I still think that it’s one of these areas with an absolutely voiceless constituency,” he said from his home in Florida. “Squeaky wheels get the oil, and these wheels have no squeak at all.”