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Google will extend some benefits to contract workers after internal protest

Google employees and contractors walk off the job to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California.

The sudden layoff of 34 contract programmers angered employees and contractors alike.

Google employees are rewriting workplace rules at one of the world’s largest tech companies.

Following months of pressure from workers, Google announced on Tuesday that it will start requiring contract companies to provide some benefits to the thousands of contract employees who work every day with Google’s full-time employees at company offices around the world.

Google said firms that provide it with contract workers must offer them paid sick days, paid parental leave, comprehensive health care, and tuition reimbursement, according to a spokesperson for Google. These contract companies, which include catering businesses and cleaning services, must also agree to pay workers at least $15 an hour.

This is no small thing.

Temporary workers, contract employees, and vendors (collectively known asknown as TVCs), now make up a huge part of Google’s global workforce — about 54 percent. That includes everyone from cafeteria cooks to software engineers. But unlike Google’s 90,000 full-time employees, contractors do not get the same pay, perks, or benefits. Many don’t even get paid vacation.

Google’s temporary workers have grown increasingly frustrated with what they view as their second-class status, and last month, that frustration turned to outrage. On March 8, Google managers abruptly fired 34 contract writers on its “personality team,” which developed the voice of Google Assistant in more than 50 languages, according to workers.

“We demand that Google respect and uphold our existing contracts. For those whose contract was shortened, we demand payment for the remaining length of the contracts,” they wrote in a letter circulating internally, which was signed by more than 900 employees and TVCs. “We also demand that Google as a whole respect the work of contractors like those on the Personality Team. Convert contract workers to full-time employees, give us the benefits and stability we deserve.”

Google didn’t respond to an email Wednesday from Vox about the workers’ demands, but a spokesperson pointed to the new policy changes, which addressed some of the points they raised.

Several TVCs applauded the decision in a blog post Wednesday, but said the laid-off employees are still waiting to hear back from Google about whether the company “will respect our current contracts or convert us to full time positions.”

Google’s policy change is the latest victory for Google workers, who are using their collective leverage to successfully change policies they consider unfair and unethical. Their sustained pressure has prompted Google to reform its sexual harassment policies, drop forced arbitration agreements, and to stop pursuing contracts to develop artificial intelligence technology for the US military. And they’ve now joined contract workers in their push for equal treatment.

Contract workers have accused Google of creating an unequal workforce

Full-time employees at Google have encouraged temporary workers to demand equal treatment, dignity, and respect.

In December, a group of TVCs sent a scathing letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, accusing the tech company of creating a segregated workforce, in which contract workers get paid less and get far fewer benefits than full-time employees who do the same work.

Because contract workers are more likely to be people of color, they also say the dynamic reinforces “a system of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination.”

The letter, which was shared with Vox, was signed simply “TVCs at Google,” so it’s unclear how many workers feel that way. But contractors now make up a huge part of Google’s workforce, from marketing and sales staff to computer programmers. Google has hired so many contractors in recent years that they now outnumber full-time employees (the company has about 90,000 full-time employees).

The temporary workers, who are employed by subcontracting firms but work in Google’s offices, said they wear different-colored badges and are often shut out of meetings and denied information needed to do their jobs.

“It is clear that we will continue to be mistreated and ignored if we stay silent,” they wrote in the letter. “Google has the power —  and the money  — to ensure that we are treated equitably, with respect and dignity.”

Though Google is hardly the only US company to employ a large workforce of contractors, the sheer size of the company and its temporary workforce points to a larger, problematic trend within the US economy: Too many tech companies are trying to boost profit marginsby hiring contractors whom they pay less and who receive fewer benefits than full-time employees on their payroll.

Thousands of workers at Google don’t get paid sick days or vacation

Google and other Silicon Valley tech companies are well known for their generous employee perks. Employees get catered parties, stock options, and substantial paid time off and parental leave. But less discussed is the company’s reliance on contract workers, which Bloomberg describes as a “shadow workforce” that does all the grunt work for less compensation. They wear red badges, while full-time employees wear white badges.

It’s worth reading Bloomberg’s entire article on the subject. But here are a few paragraphs that capture the dynamic, and why employees believe it’s problematic:

Before each weekly Google all-hands meeting, trays of hors d’oeuvres and, sometimes, kegs of beer are carted into an auditorium and satellite offices around the globe for employees, who wear white badges. Those without white badges are asked to return to their desks.

Google’s Alphabet Inc. employs hordes of these red-badged contract workers in addition to its full-fledged staff. They serve meals and clean offices. They write code, handle sales calls, recruit staff, screen YouTube videos, test self-driving cars and even manage entire teams — a sea of skilled laborers that fuel the $795 billion company but reap few of the benefits and opportunities available to direct employees.

In their Decemberletter, contract workers expressed anger about this situation, saying it creates an underclass within Google’s workforce.

The perceived mistreatment of contract workers was one reason that 20,000 Google employees and TVCs walked off the job last month at Google offices across the world. They were also angry about a New York Times article published in Octoberdetailing how Google paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of sexual harassment, while staying silent about the alleged misconduct.

“These changes are significant and we’re inspired by the thousands of full-time employees and TVCs who came together to make this happen,” the employees responded in their blog post. “However, even though these changes are an important step forward to acknowledging some of the needs of TVCs in general, there’s still a long way to go.”

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