Contract laborers at tech companies should be allowed to organize

Alvina Yeh
Although median household income rose last year for the second year in a row (thanks, Obama), working families still face overwhelming challenges.

Although median household income rose last year for the second year in a row (thanks, Obama), working families still face overwhelming challenges. Immigrant rights are under attack. Workers are forced to fight for basic dignity and justice. Health care access is readily threatened. Quality childcare is scarce. But the biggest challenge is growing economic inequality.

This is fueled in part by businesses that rely on contract labor -- a well-known tactic to drive down worker wages in order to create million-dollar executive paydays. These corporations use contract labor as a tool to crush worker attempts to negotiate fair wages and as a loophole to avoid paying for quality health insurance, family and medical leave, worker education and worker retraining.

As an Asian American woman leader of a labor rights organization and a regular consumer with many choices, I am constantly faced with the decision of sacrificing my ideals for the sake of convenience or cost. That might mean looking past toxic corporate culture to take an Uber over a taxi or risking racial profiling to book an Airbnb over a hotel.

Choosing companies that rely on contract labor should pose similar dilemmas to conscious consumers. Behind small decisions, like what app to use, lie real consequences for workers. But when it comes to some of the worst offenders -- the biggest tech companies that have become an inextricable part of our everyday lives -- we aren’t left with much of a choice.

Facebook preaches its goal “to focus every day on how to build real value for the world.” Google famously shouts its motto, “Don’t be evil.” But when it comes to treating workers fairly, the reality for Big Tech’s tens of thousands of contract workers can be dramatically different.

These workers—many of whom are people of color—make as little as $20,000 a year. The hardship and inequality this kind of treatment produces is staggering.

The corporate executives behind ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft continue to cash in million dollar paychecks, while their drivers are unable to organize for better wages and economic security.

The contract workers who shuttle well-off Facebook techies from building to building sleep in their cars between shifts because they cannot afford nearby housing. A family of five lives in a garage because the parents cannot earn enough from their contract work in Facebook’s cafeteria to pay for proper housing.

Contract workers at Google’s warehouses have similar problems of low pay and poor working conditions. And, according to insiders, Google has an equal number of contract workers and employees, so these problems permeate the company.

If we are to lessen growing inequality, we must remember that every choice made for our convenience can come at a high cost to real workers. We can no longer accept this corporate practice of keeping contracted workers at arm’s length.

It is long past time for politicians, community activists and other advocates in the progressive community to call out big tech companies for their anti-worker practices and demand they employ all workers fairly. This is especially important for political leaders who are genuine friends of the labor movement but who have been silent until now on Big Tech’s contract worker policies.

Meanwhile, decades of labor organizing in other industries have shown that collective bargaining agreements, which include benefits likes medical leave, healthcare and educational opportunities, are indeed possible. This is something workers want and need. For example, more than 500 of those underpaid contract cafeteria workers from Facebook recently joined a new union for contractors in the tech industry, and campaigns like Silicon Valley Rising are encouraging more workers to unite.

The opportunities for the labor movement to organize within Big Tech is promising, but this fight is a shared struggle for all working people and families. We need all hands on deck -- labor organizers, political leaders, and conscious consumers like yourself -- to hold Big Tech and other corporations accountable.

We need to demand they offer sustainable jobs with fair wages, access to healthcare, and the ability to live and work with dignity, free from fear and discrimination.

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