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Google Subcontractors Face Low Pay, Inadequate Benefits, Union Survey Finds

(Bloomberg) -- Workers at Google’s subcontractors say they receive inadequate pay and benefits, lack job security and have little say in working conditions, according to survey responses from almost 2,000 employees conducted by the Alphabet Workers Union.

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The AWU released the findings Wednesday from what it called the largest survey of US-based employees at 248 subcontractors of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, including Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., Accenture Plc and Appen Ltd. The workers surveyed have a wide range of jobs. They include raters — people who assess the quality of Google products like search results and ads — as well as those who are part of YouTube’s content operations team, writers for Google’s help center, and even employees training algorithms for Google’s buzzy new AI chatbot, Bard. AWU said it sent surveys to about 26,000 workers and spent about six months collecting the responses, which were analyzed by two digital labor researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

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The findings “reveal a lack of enforcement by Google of its own standards,” said Parul Koul, a Google software engineer and executive chair of the AWU.

“We have the data to show that Google’s minimum benefit standards are in practice little more than a blog post — not guarantees that every Google worker receives their fair share,” Koul said. “No one working on a Google or Alphabet product should be struggling to put food on the table, make a doctor’s appointment or take a day off when they’re sick.”

The release of the survey represents an escalation by the AWU, a minority union that doesn’t have collective bargaining rights, to call attention to labor conditions at Google. Earlier this month, the labor group staged rallies on both US coasts to protest “poverty wages and no benefits” for Google raters, and to support thousands of co-workers who were recently laid off. Under the banner of AWU, YouTube Music workers in Austin, Texas, also announced a strike over a return-to-office mandate and alleged union-busting after dozens of workers filed for a union election in October.

Google said the survey by AWU was “unrepresentative and misleading.”

“We require our US staffing partners and suppliers to provide an industry leading benchmark of wages and benefits for their provisioned employees who access our corporate systems and campuses,” Google spokesperson Chris Pappas said in a statement. “We hold them accountable to those benchmarks, and to our Supplier Code of Conduct, which we conduct comprehensive audits against.”

Some workers said they are paid below Google’s own publicized minimum wage standards. One worker, Jay Buchanan, said he started as a search rater for Google in 2016, feeling optimistic about his $13.50-an-hour wage. Soon after he started getting full-time hours at the job, he started to consider renting a new place. He moved in with a partner, who is disabled, and the job fit their lifestyle — she uses a wheelchair and Buchanan, working from home, could help her with simple tasks like going up and down the stairs.

Now, Buchanan said, he has become desperate to make ends meet. In seven years of employment with Leapforce Inc. and Appen, the companies that work with Google, he has seen his pay rise to just $14 an hour, a dollar short of Google’s minimum standards for its subcontracted workers.

“The years have really worn down the rosy tint,” Buchanan said in an interview. “Watching the wage sit stock still while the cost of being alive slowly ticked up has me constantly wondering whether the job was worth it, while not really having any other options available.”

Appen didn’t respond to requests for comment. Pappas, the Google spokesperson, said that raters “work part-time from home” and “often work for multiple companies at a time.” Google relies on its suppliers to manage the employment terms for the raters, including pay and benefits, he added.

The survey “makes clear the need for Google to commit to hearing directly from workers to ensure these baseline standards actually meet their needs,” Koul said. “Google must not only enforce its own standards for workers across employment classification, but also raise the standards so every Google worker can enjoy dignified benefits and pay.”

In survey answers and in interviews, employees described a two-tiered system that treats subcontractors as second-class, despite working full-time to improve Google products and services. “Google has all this control, but very little liability for us as contract workers,” said Sam Regan, a Cognizant employee working on content operations at YouTube — a job that requires workers to handle copyright cases or add metadata tags onto YouTube music videos.

Cognizant, he said, refers to Google as “the client,” as if it is an external entity and could change at any time. “But in fact, we use Google assets, we use Google tools. We work on Google products all day,” Regan said. “We do Google security and privacy training. We have official Google emails. But at the end of the day, they tell us, ‘You don’t work at Google. They’re one of your clients.’”

Jeff DeMarrais, a Cognizant spokesperson, said it was “disappointing” that the workers chose to strike over Cognizant’s return-to-office policy. “Associates working on this project accepted their employment with the understanding that they were accepting in-office Cognizant positions, and that the team would work together at a physical location based in Austin,” he said in a statement.

DeMarrais said the employees are hired, trained and paid by Cognizant. “They may receive some ancillary training from our client so they can interface with a specific project’s tools and processes, but Cognizant is the sole employer of these employees, not Google or YouTube,” he said.

Pappas said Google respected the right of the Cognizant employees to choose whether to join a union. “Their decision will not affect our work with Cognizant, as we hold many contracts with both unionized and non-union suppliers,” he said. “As the employer, Cognizant is responsible for these workers' employment terms.”

Having a subcontracted company communicate workers’ benefits leads to confusion about what is available, said Sarah Murphy, a writer for Google’s help page at Accenture Flex. Murphy said she was told she was not eligible for sick pay, and worked through an illness in the past year.

“The uncertainty of not knowing if I would get paid for a sick day or not was not fun,” she said in an interview. Once she and other workers pointed out Google’s policies, which require eight sick days minimum for subcontracted workers, they were finally told they were eligible to take leave. “It was like, fight us tooth and nail, and you’ll get the right,” Murphy said.

Accenture said it did not comment on individual personnel matters. A spokesperson said the company offers its employees a comprehensive compensation and benefits package that includes health care, paid time off and access to a learning platform meant to help advance workers’ careers. Information about all of these benefits are periodically communicated to workers, the spokesperson said in a statement.

But the AWU’s findings showed nearly half of the subcontracted workers surveyed were either not aware of, or did not have access to paid sick days. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they had no access to paid parental leave. And only 10% reported having access to tuition reimbursement. According to the AWU’s findings, 65% of the respondents were non-white.

Even within the group of subcontracted workers, there are significant racial, gender and sexual orientation wage gaps, the survey showed. Black and Hispanic workers made 20% less than their white counterparts, and LGBTQ employees make on average 15% less than their heterosexual coworkers, according to the survey. Vendors with disabilities make on average 18% less than their able-bodied coworkers.

The AWU’s findings backed up workers’ experiences of a “hierarchy in labor where certain people make less, through certain structural ways,” said Veronique Emond-Sioufi, a Simon Fraser University researcher who helped analyze the results.

The survey, she said, shows “how this kind of labor gets devalued and undervalued. It’s that race to the bottom. Wherever the floor is, everybody is going to be pulled down.”

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