Welcome To The Precariat

A growing slice of the US workforce is stuck in low wage temp work, even though they would like better paid full-time work. These are not the elite freelancers, selling their programming or marketing skills to the highest bidder. Instead, these folks are blocked from making a living or dependable wage.

Erin Hatton, The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy

A quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050). Not only are many jobs low-wage, they are also temporary and insecure. Over the last three years, the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other, according to the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing temp recruitment agencies, outsourcing specialists and the like.

Low-wage, temporary jobs have become so widespread that they threaten to become the norm. But for some reason this isn’t causing a scandal. At least in the business press, we are more likely to hear plaudits for “lean and mean” companies than angst about the changing nature of work for ordinary Americans.

How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Many argue that it was the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces — globalization, deindustrialization and technological change — beyond our political control. Yet employers had (and have) choices. Rather than squeezing workers, they could have invested in workers and boosted product quality, taking what economists call the high road toward more advanced manufacturing and skilled service work. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, American employers have generally taken the low road: lowering wages and cutting benefits, converting permanent employees into part-time and contingent workers, busting unions and subcontracting and outsourcing jobs.

Contrast this with the work programs of Germany, where the non-professionals are trained systematically, and grown into skilled and highly productive workers: a key resource. The leadership there opted to avoid massive outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries, and instead of pocketing the profits from wage arbitrage the Germany corporations invested in their own people, driving up the wages there.

Hatton’s piece details the rise of Kelly and other temp agencies, as well.

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