NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A new report produced by New Labor, a non-profit workers’ rights organization, in partnership with the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, has revealed vast deficiences in the treatment of temporary workers in New Jersey.
The findings contained in the report, titled “Controlled Chaos,” were gathered in 2014 from focus groups of “perma-temp” warehouse workers in New Jersey.
The workers interviewed in the focus groups were questioned on five key concerns: methods of recruitment, job experiences like training and transportation, supervisor interaction, payment, and the balance between home life and work.
The results for each category were far from ideal.
Cutting corners becomes the main mode of conducting business when workers do not have protections form exploitation. While this issue is prominent in New Brunswick, there are also rising concerns across New Jersey’s other “temp towns” like Perth Amboy, Elizabeth and Newark.
The hourly rates and payment structures at temp agencies often fluctuate without notice or reason.
In one case, a worker was promised $8.00 per hour as opposed to the standard $7.25 per hour for lifting boxes, but instead received the lesser rate.
“When pay day came (I was happy thinking about the $8.00), I received a payment of $7.25. I asked the woman why she had done that. I told her that she had fooled me and lied to me,” the worker was quoted in the report.
Working under the conditions imposed by the temp agencies, there is often no rhyme or reason to what is normal.
Often companies request more workers than they actually need, leaving a large group out of a day’s wages and likely costing them transportation money, and lost time.
In addition to this, there are large incentives to cheat those that do indeed work out of their pay, delaying check delivery and often simply not making good on promised wages.
Complaints about discrimination or workplace safety are often met with termination, or otherwise ignored.
There are also wildly shifting pay rates among workers doing the exact same jobs, little to no concern for safety as previously mentioned and when asked why they do not file complaints there was a nearly resounding response of: “To who?”
GENDER DISCRIMINATION ISSUE IS PARAMOUNT
According to the report, employers and temp agencies exhibit a consistent disregard for work conditions, scheduling, and differential treatment of workers based on their gender.
Women, who work as packers, pickers, cleaning staff, and an array of other challenging jobs, are often given the short end of the stick, according to the report.
Jobs offered by these agencies are often separated as “men’s” and “women’s” jobs, there is no specified reason for this, other than the apparent vast pay difference.
Men are immediately valued at higher rates signs offering work clearly display their price: “Men $9, Women $8.”
There is no difference in the work, but merely an implied higher value based on gender rather than ability or experience.
New Labor hopes hopes the report will lay the groundwork necessary to break gender barriers, remove bias, and bring to light to methods of repairing the very broken system New Jersey is implementing currently at the expense of those who are just trying to earn a living.
Working women face special and unique challenges in the temporary agency system.
Often, the work day requires early arrival and late afternoon return home, leaving children in need of care and attention.
The fees for a babysitter, as well as transportation to work and back, can exceed the payment received from a day of work.
There are also times when the women are called to work, hire a babysitter, but then arrive to find they’ve called too many people and are ultimately turned away, a day of work lost and money wasted that could have gone to better use.
They are not even compensated for the effort they made simply to show up, jeopardizing these workers’ work/family balance. According to the report, this practice could lead to a spiral into poverty or at the very least an added stress on the oppressed female temp workers.
Lou Kimmel of New Labor told New Brunswick Today that there have been some small developments on the much longer journey to righting the grave error, as well as a few obstacles to progress.
Kimmel said New Labor had approached stores featuring the signs offering jobs to men and women on September 10 and they have indeed been taken down.
Attempts were made to contact the Equal Opportunity Commission, but were met with no response which is fairly common and a consistent frustration
Kimmel also stated that previous research showed a pattern of engrained behaviors when it comes to the treatment of these women, and there is also a staunch resistance to changing these methods of business.
These women are at the mercy of supervisors who often see them as lesser than men and often are found to be sexually aggressive toward them.
One participant relayed her struggle with unwelcome advances in the report:
Where I work, the supervisor likes to flirt with the new women. At the beginning, he asks whether one is single or if one has a husband. It’s the first thing he asks when one arrives at that company. I told him that I have my husband, and that I respect him. So, he told me that I was beautiful, and that he liked me. I told him that I was there to work, that I respected him, and that I wanted respect from him too… Then, he tried to say more things to me until I told him that he needed to stop. I told him that I needed respect… I have heard that if you go to the office, if you file a complaint, you get kicked out… That’s the reason why women don’t speak up: so that they keep their jobs.
With workers seen by employers and agencies as cogs in a much larger machine of business rather than people, there are consistent lapses in consideration for basic human needs and wants.
TRANSPORTATION COSTS TAKEN OUT OF PAY
Transportation is a key factor and often the agencies provide in some form or another in order to get a cut of the money.
One participant painted a terrible picture of what she was subjected to when interviewed as part of the group.
“And sometimes they send you to companies that… the van will leave you there, and the company decides whether to take you or not. The van leaves, and you are stuck there, whether you did work or not. And you have to pay for your ride for that day.”
The van services cost around $35-$48 weekly and often there is no other transport option. This is not only exploitation it also brings unnecessary danger, especially for working women.
Based on worker accounts, there are many incidents of overcrowding, drivers are often aggressive and speeding, and some even report the van operators appear to be intoxicated while driving.
Furthermore, some of these agencies simply will not allow the use of personal and/or public transportation in order to deposit more money back into their pockets.
DANGEROUS AND UNFRIENDLY CONDITIONS
The work environments are kept cold and unfriendly.
Rather than functioning as a team to meet an end goal, it is every woman for herself, pitted against each other to work efficiently and often at unequal rates based on nothing in particular.
When asked about friendships in the workplace, one woman responded “Friends are only God, and one’s own mother.”
This profound statement is a clear example of the horrid conditions under which these woman are made to work in order to try and earn an honest living.
This is a troubling light shed on how these agencies get away with such massive inconsistencies in treatment and care for their workers.
The hostility inspired by such a divided work environment only breeds further trouble as no one woman will back up another when a complaint is made.
Another reported “If somebody suffers an accident, nobody says anything because nothing will be done.”
Not only is there no sense of comradery or protection, there is a pervading notion of isolation within the workforce. The only unifier is the terrible conditions and above all the competition with fellow workers.
This leads to animosity and that breeds further trouble among workers. Combined with the lack of proper training, some workers are forced to pick up the slack of the untrained, but are not fairly compensated.
Kimmel said that New Labor is working to organize a screening of the documentary “A Day’s Work,” in November.
The film tells the story of Day Davis, a young man who was killed at his first day on the job as a temporary employee.
His sister, Antonia, delves into the cause of his death as well as the larger issue of multi-billion-dollar staffing agencies putting millions of hard-working Americans at risk.
NEXT STEPS FOR NEW LABOR
New Labor, with their findings in tow, have set forth a call to action for the betterment of these facilities and the treatment of their female workers.
They suggest that agencies should cease the gendering of jobs and amend staffing policies to reflect that.
Agencies should supply workers with reliable systems in which to file complaints or report abuse, say advocates.
They contend there also needs to be a better means by which to request and receive raises, efficient on the job training, safe, affordable and reliable transportation in line with current regulations.
Finally, New Labor is asking the agencies to sign a “Responsible Employer Pact” with the organization to ensure all employees are treated with fair consideration and equal opportunity.
New Labor also intends to continually monitor these conditions, according to Kimmel.
They will continue highlighting instances of abuse and seek to provide aid in better support and empowering female workers.
Kimmel says the organization supports the implementation of a union, or another worker organization that can work with employers and agencies to promote a healthy dialogue when issues arise.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.