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The Era of the Permatemp

By Andy Fitzgerald


Underneath the employment figures that are released and hotly debated every month lurks a troubling reality: the ballooning contingent labor force.

Its ranks include seasonal employees, temporary contractors, freelancers, and interns, none of whom can expect their job to be “permanent”. For millions of Americans, this is the new normal – no job security, no benefits: it’s where the devaluation of labor actively meets exploitation.

Recruiting firm MBO Partners is projecting that the contingent workforce will grow from 17 million to 23 million by 2017. I am one of these 17 million, and part of the millennial cohort that increasingly makes up this portion of the workforce.

Financially, being a contingent laborer means lower wages (or, even if the wage is higher, a lower earned income because of shorter hours), and a lack of employer-supported benefits. Many who are just entering the workforce – saddled with record levels of student debt – are forced to fill these roles or be unemployed. These workers are neither saving, nor spending at levels that many economists and economic observers claim creates more (and allegedly better) jobs.

On a personal level, being a temp worker also means grappling with a feeling of being complicit in one’s own exploitation. Work that previously came with an assumption of a “career path” and institutional support – the aforementioned benefits include sick days, maternity leave, and paid holidays – are fictions for the legion of hourly workers.

The sinister double-bind: without the protections of permanent employment, contingent workers aren’t in a position to organize and agitate for improved compensation. Without those protections, or the protections of organizing with other workers, many won’t speak out against their own exploitation.

In the media industry, where I am working to secure a sustainable career, the exploitation of freelancers and interns is a particularly tricky issue. There are a few notable exceptions – The Guardian (where I previously interned) pays its interns a livable wage, and the position affords responsibility, a learning experience and legitimate exposure. But industry-wide, the practice of writing for free, or completing full-time unpaid or underpaid internships, are frequently rites of passage necessary to gain the requisite experience for most “entry-level” positions and some longer-term fellowships.

A few individuals have been explicitly critical of the devaluation of labor in media, including (among others) freelance journalist Nate Thayer, and Al Jazeera English’s regular columnist Sarah Kendzior. Thayer, an experienced journalist, blogged about an “offer” from The Atlantic that he rewrite a shorter version of a story for exposure (i.e., for free). Following Thayer’s viral post about his exchange with the Atlantic, Kendzior wrote an essay titled “Managed expectations in the post-employment economy.” The post-employment economy is her term for the new economic status quo, where employees (often temps or interns) are unpaid or seriously underpaid for work that is typical of a salaried employee. She notes a New York Times article that quotes a manager at a media company wanting to hire a “22-22-22”: “meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year.”

Some might claim that perpetual underemployment in these industries is a function of “choosiness”. The argument is usually that those continually working temp positions or internships should look for more secure work elsewhere, in different fields from their study or past temp work. Or, it might even be that individuals are aspiring to work that they will never be qualified for (at least as a full-time permanent employee). As Buzzfeed’s executive editor Doree Shafrir recently put it,

“Paradoxically, the explosion of internships in creative fields has led to an environment in which people who are in fact not qualified for the jobs they desire so badly can continue to just barely work in those fields. But we, the employers in those industries, have never explicitly told them no.”

There is a certain truth to Shafrir’s point, at least in terms of hiring interns who will never be brought onboard as full-time permanent employees. But there’s a reason employers don’t tell interns this and continue to hire from such a pool: because the 22-22-22 model (stretching into the 30-something-22-22 model) is better for the bottom line.

Use of contingent labor to pad profits is by no means isolated to white collar and creative industry work. As ProPublica reported last year, the “permatemp” is a fixture within the blue-collar workforce. These workers make up as many as 1 in 20 blue-collar jobs, make 25% less than their permanently hired counterparts and face a higher risk of injury on the job.

What many of us in the business of pontificating professionally are missing is that this phenomenon is not just a condition of a particular industry or socioeconomic class, nor is it purely the result of Republican intransigence or millennial idealism and pickiness. It’s part of an economic race-to-the-bottom that’s been happening globally for decades (and a tendency to exploit that’s existed for far longer) – it’s merely been exacerbated to the point of significant comment in the United States by the recession.

There are fixes to the difficulties that our massive contingent labor force causes on living conditions, although many are politically unfeasible at the federal level: an increased minimum wage, a stronger and more expansive social safety-net, even a Universal Basic Income.

But these fixes fail to solve the trend of devaluing labor and increasingly exploitative work environments that the contingent workforce is a prime example of. The only way to break that cycle is through increased public pressure and media coverage of this exploitation, and by organizing and agitating at all political levels – by workplace, by region, at the state level and nationally – for clearer paths to secure employment, and at a minimum, a livable wage.

It also requires fighting against the idea that “permatemps” and interns are solely responsible for their own lot – at the personal level, and at the level of public debate. Until that idea is quashed, workers will continue blaming themselves, and each other, instead of the economic status quo.

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Andy Fitzgerald

Andy Fitzgerald is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor.

Catch up with me @AndyAFitz.





April 14, 2014

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