Will the “real” employer please stand up? The consequences of the global shift to subcontracting, franchising, and outsourcing

By Anne Richardson

A fundamental change has taken place in the American workplace, and we are only now beginning to realize just how monumental it is.

A new book, The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can be Done About It, by David Weil, makes the case that in every corner of the employment world, companies are increasingly shedding their employees, while maintaining control over the ultimate product or services to be provided under the “lead” company’s logo and brand. Beginning with peripheral services such as janitorial and security, and gradually including ever more central services, such as receptionists, truckers, and even lawyers, large employers are deliberately subcontracting out their work.

warehouse

Here’s how it works: A member of a loading dock crew is paid by one company, which is in turn compensated by another company, for the number of trucks loaded. That company, Schneider Logistics, manages distribution centers for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sets the price, time requirements, and performance standards that are followed by Schneider, which in turn uses those standards to structure its contracts with its subcontractors.

Why do they do it? Employers can reduce costs by pushing many of the responsibilities connected to being the employer of record down the chain to someone else. Yet by controlling the quality and price of their goods and services, they do not lose their reputations and the goodwill of their brands.

But should lead companies be allowed to have it both ways? Should they be permitted to control the production, delivery, and cost of goods and services, without sustaining any liability for the manner in which their contractors provide them? To take a real world example, if a company like Wal-Mart sets a price that is so low that the only way for suppliers to meet it is by underpaying their employees, isn’t that really Wal-Mart’s responsibility?

This new “fissuring” model has drastic consequences for employees who have been forced to trade in traditional jobs at a lead company, with benefits and a pension plan, for part-time temporary positions with no benefits. Pushing responsibilities down the chain often means that the direct employer is less well capitalized and less capable of maintaining wage and hour standards, or enforcing health and safety rules. Since the company on top sets the price, often as low as the market will possibly bear, the company on the bottom is forced to cut to the bone. Many of the subcontractors are small businesses that go under, and then reemerge as a different company, which results in there being no responsible party  to foot the bill when legitimate claims are made.

Fissuring also negatively affects the health and safety of   the broader public. Weil argues that a significant contributing factor of the devastating environmental oil spill caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon accident in 2009 was the extent of BP’s use of contractors. In order to shield itself from liability by maintaining less control over its subcontractors, BP did not sufficiently oversee the safety component of the operation. Other authors have similarly noted the increase of injuries and fatalities that have accompanied the rise of contracting in, for example, coal mining, construction, and trucking, among others.

To be sure, there are some who benefit from the practice. The third consequence of “fissuring” is to shift the surplus generated by businesses away from the workforce and to investors. This helps to explain why the operative trend in the American workforce is the widening income gap between the rich and the working poor. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is at a hundred year high.  For example, in 1965, the average CEO made about 20 times what the average worker made at any given company. By 2013, the ratio had grown to approximately 331 to 1. What’s fascinating is that a recent study found that not only did people worldwide grossly underestimate the ratio of CEO to worker pay, but that people across all backgrounds preferred a smaller pay gap.

Weil, who was appointed the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor in May 2014, argues that since “[t]he modern employment relationship bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations,” laws and judicial decisions need to adapt current rules about workplaces to the realities of the modern world.

In every corner of the American workforce, the pressures to cut costs and improve the investor’s return have resulted in a worsened standard for the middle-class worker, as well as a worsened standard of health and safety. What can be done about it? Stay tuned for my next post.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

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