by Ken Melvin
It didn’t happen overnight.
The nightly news, when talking about the effect of the pandemic on the populace in, say, Southeast Asian, African, South American, … countries, invariably refer to the tenuous hold on life of their working poor; they don’t really have a job. Each day they rise and go forth looking for work that pays enough that they and their family can continue to subsist. It is, in some countries, a long-standing problem.
Sound too familiar? Sometime in the late 80s (??) Americans began to see day labors line up at Home Depot and Lowe’s lots in numbers not seen since The Great Depression. Manufacturing Corporations began subbing out their work to sub-contractors, otherwise known as employees without benefits; Construction Contractors subbed out construction work to these employees without benefits; Engineering Firms subbed out engineering to these employees without benefits; Landscapers’ workers were now sub-contractors/independent contractors; … Here, in the SF Bay Area, time and again, we saw vans loads of undocumented Hispanics under a ‘Labor Contractor’ come in from the Central Valley to build condos; the white Contractor for the project didn’t have a single employee; none of the workers got a W-2. Recall watching, sometime in the 90s (??), a familiar, well dressed, rotund guest from Wall Street, on the PBS News Hour, forcefully proclaiming to the TV audience:
… American workers are going to have to learn to compete with the Chinese; Civil Service employees, factory employees, … are all going to have to work for less …
All this subcontracting, independent contractors, … was a scam, a scam meant to circumvent paying going wages and benefits, … to enhance profit margins; a scam that transferred more wealth to the top.
Meanwhile back at The Ranch, after the H1B Immigration Act of 1990, Microsoft could hire programmers from India for one-half the cost of a citizen programmer. Half of Bill Gates’ fortune was resultant these labor savings; the other half was made off those not US Citizens. Taking a cue, Banks, Bio-Techs, … some City and State Governments began subcontracting out their programming to H1Bs. Often, the subcontractors/labor contractors (often themselves immigrants) providing the programmers, held the programmers’ passports/visas for security.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, friends of Bush/Cheney made fortunes on clean up contracts they subbed out for next to nothing; the independent/subcontractor scam was now officially governmentally sanctioned.
By about 2000 we began to hear the term gig-workers applied to these employees without benefits. Uber appeared in 2007 to be followed by Lift. Both are scams based on paying less than prevailing wages, on not providing worker benefits, …
These days, the nightly news, when talking about the effect of the pandemic on the populace in America, shows footage of Food Banks in California with lines 2! miles long. Many of those waiting in these lines didn’t have a real job before; they were gig-workers; they can’t apply for Unemployment Benefits. It is estimated that 1.6 million American workers (1% of the workforce) are gig-workers; they don’t have a real job. That 1% is in addition to the 16 million American workers (10% of the workforce) that are independent contractors. Of the more than 40 million currently unemployed Americans, some 17 million are either gig-workers or subcontractors/independent contractors. All of these are scams meant to transfer more wealth to the top. All of these are scams with American Workers the victims; scams, in a race to the bottom.