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Temp agencies make job security tough for meatpacking workers

Carlos Rich • Dec 09, 2010

Temporary work agencies have been popping up all over the country. I did a Google search for agencies in Iowa alone and came back with 53,000 results.  As I talk to workers, many of them say they are finding work, but that they must go through temp agencies first. Although this may seem like an innocuous path to permanent employment for many Americans, there are hidden drawbacks for low-wage workers.

Many meat-processing workers, especially immigrants, find themselves caught in hiring practices designed to keep them from gaining fair wages or job security.  Nine months ago, a worker I spoke to was unfairly fired from a plant where he was employed for almost five years. And two months ago he was hired back at the same plant, but for significantly less than he’d been making before. How did it happen? Recently, that particular employer outsourced all of its hiring to a temp agency.

The worker was making $11.25 per hour when he was fired months earlier for a minor infraction. Now he is making $8.50 per hour with no benefits. And to make matters worse he must make a 30 minute commute to and from work each day because he was forced to move in with relatives to make ends meet.

Temp- to-hire positions have higher turnover rates, and that benefits companies by ensuring few workers achieve seniority or higher wage rates. Just yesterday I visited a family that is struggling to support itself on two or three days of work a week. While there are plenty of meatpacking jobs to go around, it is difficult to know when and if a permanent, full-time position can be secured. Their house was cold. They apologized to me, explaining that they keep the heat low because they will not be able to pay high heating bills this winter.

Keeping wages low isn’t the only reason big companies would outsource their human resources. For example, many temp agencies do not offer benefits, such as health insurance. A benefits package is usually 30 to 40 percent of a permanent employee’s base income.

Immigrants and workers of color are often the most susceptible to wage theft.  Just last month I helped a worker to file claims with the Department of Labor for hours of work that had gone unpaid by a temp agency. Reports have surfaced over the years of temp agencies have set up shop and then vanished without paying workers.

It makes one wonder how many families will suffer this winter and how many will go hungry simply so giant food processing companies can skimp on paying their workers.

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