Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1897 into law Sunday, inaugurating what the bill’s author, Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) described as “landmark legislation . . . to protect hard-working Californians who often times do not have a voice in the workplace.” The bill was drafted in response to the growing practice of corporations, particularly agriculture-based companies, to skirt state labor laws by relying on third-party contractors to hire employees and administer their wages.
Last May a Capital & Main report by Bill Raden and Gary Cohn documented how workers at the sprawling Taylor Farms vegetable and salad processing plant in Tracy were denied due-process rights along with health care and other employee benefits. (See “Ten Years a Temp: California Food Giant Highlights National Rise in Exploited Labor.”) Taylor Farms has claimed that workers at its facilities are temporary employees who work for various contracting outfits. Many of these employees have worked years for Taylor Farms and yet have had little chance for advancement.
When you hear about poverty wages and extreme anti-union tactics practiced by the largest company of its kind in the world, it’s natural to think of Walmart. But California-based Taylor Farms is giving the retail giant a run for its money when it comes to low-road labor practices, while offering another example of why it’s time for the U.S. to clamp down on the use of temp agencies by huge companies trying to evade responsibility for unconscionable working conditions.
Taylor Farms is the world’s largest producer of fresh-cut vegetables, and supplies some of the nation’s biggest fast food and grocery chains including McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Ralphs and Kroger. They operate in nine states as well as Mexico, and earned revenues of $1.8 billion in 2012.
A visit to the company website offers a bucolic image of a multigenerational family-run business with the highest ethical standards.
This afternoon the California State Assembly passed Assembly Bill 1897, which would hold companies accountable for violations of workers’ rights committed by their labor suppliers. The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), passed 45-20.
Gary Cohn recently wrote about AB 1897 for Capital & Main, noting that passage could have national implications for temporary workers and income inequality. Capital & Main’s Bill Raden and Cohn previously investigated such worker abuses taking place at agribusiness giant Taylor Farms. Labor advocates supported the bill, noting that major corporations have used staffing companies to dodge responsibility for sub-standard working conditions. Meanwhile, more than 50 business groups opposed the bill.
Last April, when Federico Lopez and his sanitation team were ordered to clean a Taylor Farms storage area, the 23-year-old didn’t like what he saw.
“I went into the hallway that they expected me to clean,” Lopez remembers. “There was pigeon feces, dead pigeons, dead bats and black mold. I’m certified for that, but the rest of my coworkers weren’t.” The crew had only been given dust masks for the job by the temporary labor contractor who employed them.
When Lopez raised concerns about the cleanup, he says Taylor Farms, which is the world’s largest producer of cut vegetables and salads, assured him everything was fine and not to bother with the mess. He says that later that evening, an equally unequipped and untrained night crew cleaned the room. Shortly after, Lopez was given his notice after only three weeks on the job.
This month Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) heard Lopez’s and other stories in the Central Valley town of Tracy from about 200 mostly Latino Tracy Farms workers and family members.
Unlike the Kelly Girls of years past, today’s temp workers are just as likely to be hired to fill blue collar jobs as office positions, with one major caveat: the new “temporary” hires who pick crops, pack vegetables or clean hotel rooms can work at those jobs for years at the same company — and with little or no advancement. And, according to recent research, that’s exactly the way some of America’s largest companies like it.
The practice has become so pervasive that California Assemblymember Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) is pushing forward a bill, modeled on similar laws passed in Illinois and Massachusetts, intended to hold companies accountable for serious violations of workers’ rights committed by their own labor suppliers.
“As new jobs are added to the economy, employers are utilizing the subcontracted model known as ‘perma-temps’ to avoid accountability in the workplace,” Hernandez said last week.
The nature of employment is changing. Employees are increasingly seen as liabilities rather than assets, and so workers are kept at arm’s length from the companies they ultimately serve. Middle-class long-term jobs are shifting to precarious, low-wage work. These contingent relationships include temporary and subcontracted workers, whose ranks have been growing over the past two decades.
In California, almost one-quarter of a million people worked in the temporary help services industry in 2010; another 37,000 people worked for employee leasing firms totaling 282,000 workers in these two industries. This accounted for approximately 2.0 percent of all non-farm employment in California in 2010, approximately the same ratio as for the U.S. as whole. Employment services workers span a wide range of occupations, from professional white collar occupations like nursing, accounting, and computer programming, to blue collar work in transportation and material moving, housekeeping and landscaping,